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

By Paul Ben-Itzak                                                                                                                                          Copyright 2016 Paul Ben-Itzak

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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, 15: Nobody’s Guignol

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Torn between three French Women, and acting like a fool

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paris eternelle, petites mortes fugitifs                                                  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Open to receiving.
Open to compromise.
Understand the meaning of the term ‘contre-partie.’
Beautiful… to me.
Ready to share.
A life.
Tout qui est naturel.
Sans pudeur pour les choses qui sont naturel.
Ready to Invest.
Ready to plunge.
Free. (Libre.)
Free to be.
Free to be with someone
Understand that you can be with someone
and still be free.
That being in a couple
doesn’t mean giving up yourself.
Independent, but
Your own person
Who appreciates my own person
And — if we fit — who is ready to live in couple.
To build a life. (A construire une vie.)
To share a home. (A construire un foyer.)
Able to recognize a real home.
Able to appreciate a beautiful house.
Understand that what makes a house a home is not whether its accoutrements meet a certain bourgeoisie standard (sont assez bourgeoisie) but the care and creation and love and warmth that goes into it.
You are also
Worth savoring.
Able to savor.
Understand that vulnerabilty is a gift
not a liability.
That a man’s tears are a sign of strength,
not weakness.
able to judge
when you’ve found a man
worth keeping.

And me?
Your turn….

— Paul Ben-Itzak