New Mysteries of Lutece: Just another afternoon in Paradise

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

PARIS — Up until two weeks ago, I spent my evenings regarding a Marseille-based soap opera, “Plus belle la vie,” romantic comedies, and ‘policiers’ or crime shows. When you’re living in an isolated 300-year-old stone house in the land of pre-history in the southwest of France, there isn’t much else to do at night but plant yourself in front of the television. (Living alone, I found it hard to read at night; television at least provided the illusion of company.) But since I have returned to Paris, I have found myself embroiled in my own French soap opera, romantic comedy, and even a police drama, with me cast in the role of the kindly neighbor who the police ask to stay with ‘the little lady’ in case the schizophren who knocked down her door returns. (This was the same young man who previously had lavished my neighbor-friend Sophie and I with fromage, charcuterie, and even multi-colored marshmellows, as well as taken us dancing to a reggae bar on the rue Bagnolet in the netherworlds of the 20eme arrondissement. In the big city, heroes and villains often inter-mingle, sometimes in the same person.) It all ended — until the next chapter, anyway, still unfolding — with Sophie hailing me as the man from providence after I wrested a handful of sleeping pills from her fist on their way to her mouth and before she took off on another two-bottle rouge trip and insisted we watch “Sophie’s Choice” for the umpteenth time.

To get the rest of the article, first published on June 16, 2010 and substantially revised today, subscribers can contact publisher Paul Ben-Itzak at (Just paste that address into your browser.) Not a subscriber? Subscribe to the Arts Voyager for just $49.95/year ($25 for students and unemployed artists) and receive full access to all Arts Voyager stories and art, including stories archived since 2011. To subscribe via PayPal, just designate your payment to, or write us at that address to learn how to pay by check, Euros, or British pounds. Subscribe by January 31, 2017 and receive a second, gift subscription for free.

Art not Bombs: In Artcurial Impressionism & Modern Auction, Hope

modimpacpapazoff-smallGeorges Papazoff (1894-1972), “Tete,” circa 1928. Oil on canvas, 92 x 73 cm (36 1/4 x 28 3/4 inches). Signed at lower left. Pre-dates by 17 years Duchamp’s intergallactic View cover.  Artcurial pre-sale estimate 20,000 – 30,000 Euros. Image copyright and courtesy Artcurial.

modacpuigaudeau-smallFerdinand du Puigaudeau (1864-1930), “Jeune fille à la bougie,” 1891. Oil on thin cardboard laid down on canvas, 50 x 72 cm (19 3/4 x 28 3/8 inches). Signed and dated lower right. Du Puigaudeau landscapes available in this auction are also breathtaking. Artcurial pre-sale estimate: 20,000 – 30,000 Euros. Image copyright and courtesy Artcurial.

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2016 Paul Ben-Itzak

“The opposite of war isn’t peace – it’s creation.”
–Jonathan Larsen, “RENT”

As my longtime readers know, even if Artcurial may be best known as France’s leading auction house, I venerate it as setting a curatorial example more museums would do well to follow. Not just because of its storied past as an art gallery which unabashedly announced its arrival in the mid-sixties, under the glamorous patronage of L’Oreal, in the previously hushed gallery ghetto of Paris’s 8eme arrondissement, but because of the artists I’ve been able to discover by thumbing through its auction catalogs, many of whom have been neglected by museums which have stashed their holdings away in the basement….
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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.

L’Arts Voyager cherche mecenes pour pouvoir continuer notre travail / The Arts Voyager needs sponsors to be able to continue our work

Levé des fonds / sous-scriptions: Alors que l’Arts Voyager peut revenir a Paris cette automne pour pouvoir continuer d’ecrit sur les artistes et galeries au niveau locale, il nous faut trouvée 2,500 Euros. (Frais de location + voyage ((de la Dordogne, ou se trouve notre bureau principe)) pour 2 mois environ.) Si vous voulez donné — il n’y a aucun don trop petite — s’il vous plait a contacter Paul Ben-Itzak, chef de la redaction, a . (Si le lien ne marche pas, simplement copier cette addresse a votre messagerie.) Attention: Votre don sera ramassé seulement si on arrive a obtenu le somme totale. (Ou, le cas echeant, si on reussi a trouvée un location moins chere. Et sur cette sujet, les tuyaux sont les bienvenu aussi!) Tout mecene sera reconnu dans nos pages. Redacteur, journaliste (le New York Times, Reuters, etc.), et traducteur (clients CNRS, post-doctorale, etc.), Paul est aussi dispo pour rediger et traduire vos theses, articles, dossiers presse, romans, poemes, CVs, etc. MERCI!

Tr. anglais / In English:

For The Arts Voyager to be able to return to Paris this fall and continue to write about artists and galleries at the local level, we need to raise 2,500 Euros. (Housing in Paris for approximately two months, transportation costs from our principal bureau in the Dordogne, etc.) To make a pledge, please contact editor and publisher Paul Ben-Itzak at . (If the link does not open automatically, just paste that addresse into your e-mail program.) Important: Your donation will be collected only if we reach the total goal. (Or, if that’s not the case, if we’re able to find a less expensive rental. And on that subject: All leads are welcome!) All donors will be acknowledged on The Arts Voyager. Editor, journalist (the NY Times, Reuters, etc.), and translator, Paul is also available for your editing and translating assignments. MERCI!


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


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.

La 85eme Victime ou, comment faire avec cet mal?

“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

— Franklin Roosevelt

SAINT-PIC-LE-LOUPE (Dordogne), France — What I remember with the most delectation from my first visit to Paris took place in the dark, at the Grand Action cinema in the Latin Quarter, which was showing Fritz Lang’s “While the City Sleeps,” retitled in French “The Fifth Victim.” (If French is the more poetic of the two languages, whoever is in charge of translating movie titles is wanting in this department, although it’s no better going the other direction; American distributors reduced “The Fabulous Destiny of Amelie Poulain” to “Amelie,” denuding the title of this cinematic proverb of its moral.) Returning to Paris the following summer, I luxuriated in walking from my flat at 33 rue Lamartine (where Baudelaire once lived) in the 9th arrondissement, along the rue La Fayette (“I am here!”), then the Boulevard Jean Jaures to the parc La Villette for the annual outdoor cinema festival. Never mind that Emmanuel Beart’s voice was sometimes a minute ahead of her lips, that it was vain to try to “Shshsh!” people come for the picnic as well as the film, the annoying wafts of cigarette smoke or that, because the film never started before a sundown sometimes falling as late as 10:30, staying until the end meant making the last Metro problematic; I was happy to stroll home, past the corner “Turkish” joints with schwarma grilling on spits, the glass facade of the Gare du Nord, a trompe d’oeil graffiti taking up an entire wall, and over the train tracks…. The Cinema in Pleine Air, as it’s called, presenting each year a different theme, seemed the quintessential Parisian summer event, combining pot-luck ensemble dining and cinema, all this under an azure summer sky. And for free — the perfect manifestation of the Socialist thinking — towards the well-being of the collective — so often vilified in the United States, at least pre-Bernie Sanders. Even delicately stepping around bottles of Bordeaux, quiches in aluminum pans, baguettes, cheese, and tomato salads arranged on blankets so close they seemed to compose a giant patchwork quilt was just another opportunity to demonstrate one’s proficiency at the art of politesse.

This afternoon, as the Senate prepared to approve (after an assembly vote okayed it by a vote of 489 to  26 ) a 6-month extension of the State of Emergency in place since November 13 (President Francois Hollande having re-considered his inclination to end it after the Nice massacre), the Paris prefecture announced the cancellation of the rest of this summer’s Cinema en Plein Air, which opened July 13 and was supposed to continue through late August. Before a change in travel plans, I was all set last week to see the triple-header (over three nights) of “Rushmore,” “Miami Vice,” and “Jour de Fete,” this year’s theme being something like All Dressed Up with Everywhere to go.

“Rushmore” is just about the most romantic movie this side of “Splash,” with Wes Anderson’s boarding school hero mounting an elaborate battle on a high school stage, complete with real miniature helicopters and genuine fire-fights, to win the heart of his would-be sweetheart.

“Miami Vice,” Michael Mann’s film extension of his glam ’80s television series, proffers the simple solutions to crime-solving that seem to elude us when it comes to these murderous gangs which masquerade as religious crusades.

“Jour de Fete” is Jacques Tati’s ode to a rural France (in which I spend my time when I’m not in Paris) which, I hope, can still be saved, the last of my illusions in this our year when living became dangerous being that maybe we’re too small for them to notice us.

In rural France, we tend to ‘faire avec notre mal.’ My morning today started with the sound of withered terra cotta roof tiles being tossed on the pavement by the roofer who began working on the house two doors down Monday. I thought he was ribbing me when he said, “We’ll be starting at 6 a.m. every day,” but soon figured out that the hour makes sense given that we’re having Texas-like 100+ degree afternoons here in the Southwest of France, and not even my cat would want to sun on that hot terra cotta roof. So instead of agonizing, I (figuratively) hung a “Gone Fishin'” sign on my door and have been having my thermos coffee on a narrow Eiffel-era rusty iron bridge above the low-lying Dordogne every morning, exchanging the clacking tiles for the tweets of birds and occasional traffic, after checking and writing e-mail outside the tourism office to the cascades of a nearby fountain and the barking of farmers setting up their duck pate, salami, vegetable, and too many tchotchke stands. This particular morning also started with the welcome sound of Fabrice chatting from his attic window with the roofer (our house, in between the two, looks out over another neighbor’s garden where the pink roses are in their second bloom), before he returns to Bordeaux for more leukemia treatments; they are looking for a bone marrow donor. On Sunday, my neighbors Michel and Emilie and their 25-year-old son had me over for the first barbecue on their terrace of this late-breaking summer; the trellises of green table grapes were enough to protect us from the burgeoning Sun, as we savored rillette Charentaise, Toulouse sausages, marinated Texas-style (emphasis on ‘style’) chicken, turkey kebabs, ventriche, and sumptuous cheeses, washed down with parakeets (pastisse + mint syrup), cold Occitania (this being the new-old name for the four regions previously known as the Languedoc-Rousillon and Midi-Pyrenees) rosé, and chalky, earthy, rustic Pecharmant (the local red). Their son in law, who joined us later with his wife to arrose Michel and Emilie’s new car with deliciously fruity champagne accompanied by a home-made apple tart with a crust so buttery I told Emilie it could be mistaken for Brittany shortbread, said that it was inconsistent to have a State of Emergency which theoretically banned demonstrations (easy targets) but which in fact allowed most of the labor demonstrations which took place this Spring-Summer. Personally, I took courage from prime minister Manuel Valls’s passionate assembly defense last night against right-wing legislators who want to set up a French version of Guantanamo to lock up *potential* terrorists that (paraphrasing), “In France, we don’t lock people up based on suspicion. We know where that has lead us over the past century,” a reference to, among other episodes, the Dreyfus affair.

I think that the current government is doing its best under ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’ circumstances. For the rest of us, on faire avec notre mal.

— Paul Ben-Itzak

C’est pas grave: How the baguette became my worse enemy or, Fear and Loafing in the Southwest of France

SAINT-PIC-LE-LOUPE (Dordogne), France — The main justification for my spending half of the last year in Paris has been dental work. Each time we think everything’s done, I’ve no sooner returned here to Saint-Pic-le-Loupe (not its real name) than something Dr. Cagney has just fixed falls off again, and the perpetrator is usually a baguette. I am not imprudent; first I only ordered bread that was ‘bien blanche,’ hardly cooked. Now I don’t even buy baguettes. But the sliced-up, soft, and very white baguette my friends served with the morbier and aged brie after a delicious palombe (a cross between a dove and a pigeon) confit which madame served and monsieur had bagged looked innocent enough. And when I noticed what felt very much like a morsel of tooth mixed up with the cheese and asked my friends if anything looked broken, they assured me, no. So it was only when I got home and looked in the mirror that I was able to confirm that the composite with which Dr. Cagney had filled out a chipped lower tooth and fallen off.

Hoping that getting out of the house would cheer me up, and needing to get some decaf and other provisions anyway, I decided to descend to the town center — I live in a medieval stone house up top the old city — and to the Carrefour Market. At least maybe I’d run into some people I know and be able to break the loneliness I feel myself succumbing to since leaving my friends’ dinner — and, more globally, Paris Monday.

So I was cheered to run into a 71-year-old cherub in a yaughting cap I know who, despite having to get around with a walker, is always smiling and then starts laughing when he sees me. He was crossing the street off the traverse, and when he saw me, he seemed to accelerate, anxious to chat.

“Ca vas?” I asked.

No longer giggling, talking tensely and his whole face turning red, and looking back at the route, he answered, “You have to watch out on this street, or they’ll run you over! See where the middle line is there? The other day I was there and a car just whizzed past! Doing 100 in a 50 kilometer zone. I could have fallen down and broken my leg, or my arm — straight to the hospital.” As I was about to expound, “Bloody tourists,” he explained, “And they were people from around here, not Brits. The English are usually considerate.”

“On est trop pressé!” I complained, trying to comfort him. The Paris speed-bug seemed to have spread.

At the Carrefour, I was still moping about my newly missing tooth morsel when I spotted my neighbor Sandrine, busy stocking soap. Sandrine has been working at Carrefour for more than 30 years. Her husband Fabrice, a stone-mason, recently finished building their lavish retirement house in Gordon, in the neighboring county of the Lot, as green as the Dordogne but more savage. “Shopping center not far away, but rolling fields with horses from the front!” exulted Fabrice, who used entirely recuperated sand-colored stones from other medieval houses. Retirement is only two years away, but they’ve already started spending week-ends there.

“Madame, est-ce que vous pouvez m’aidé?” I asked, to get Sandrine to turn around. The last time I’d seen her and Fabrice was for my birthday barbecue two months ago, right before my departure for Paris, and where I served Manhattans. But when Sandrine saw me, she didn’t seem particularly excited; we might have seen each other yesterday. “Ca vas?” I asked.

“Moi, oui, mais Fabrice, non. He’s been in the hospital for three weeks. He has leukemia.” Chemo has already started. Fabrice will come home next week for a week, then back to the hospital. After I offered my commiserations, Sandrine answered with the almost automatic, “C’est pas grave…,” then re-considered. “Mais si, c’est grave! Mais on n’est pour rien.” There’s nothing they can do about it. After asking her to give Fabrice my love, and purchasing my rations for a solitary dinner, I looked out at the parking lot, where the rain that had stopped right before I left Paris as soon as I bought an umbrella had found me and resumed here in the Dordogne. Of course, I’d left my umbrella in Paris, as there was no room for it, what with the books I’d picked up on or by Max Jacob, Leo Malet (a detective novelist — whose Nestor Burma is sort of a poor man’s Maigret, but whose wordplay matches Boris Vian’s), who I hope to translate, a Rex Stout Nero Wolfe mystery translated into French, just to have a taste of Ole New York and for ideas on translating crime stories from the other end (“Why not?” to quote Warren Oates’s reply to William Holden’s proposal to take on the Spanish army with their five-man “Wild Bunch” crew), peanut butter, three jars of Ajvar, my speakers, the book on the history of Parisian addresses I’d never opened because I was too busy writing about my adventures on the streets of Paris, a bottle of eau de vie from the Southwest of France and of an aperitif mixing eau de vie with prune juice both of which I’d scored at a Southwest wine fair in Paris, the rest of the cat food, several rolls of toilet paper, a Pernod carafe which I don’t really need but which at 1 Euro I couldn’t resist, and numerous DVDs I’d scored at vide greniers (neighborhood-wide garage sales; vide = empty, grenier= attic) for a Euro or less, including “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.”

As I sit here shivering after the wet walk home, I tell myself that at least there’s one good thing about being cold in the south of France in mid-July. If I’m not quite up to having rosé for the aperitif, at least it won’t be too hot for me to drink the last of the Manhattan mix. And if I get fucked up, Why not? Things already seem pretty fucked up anyway.            — Paul Ben-Itzak