Europe at the Crossroads: Portes Ouvertes de Belleville & the Prè Saint-Gervais, Performers from Around the World — Artists Converge on Paris; Help the Arts Voyager be there

Parce que oui, la Culture française – comme d’ailleurs tous les cultures qui déferle vers Paris – appartient au monde qu’elle a si souvent rayonné, et il faut refusé de la laisse etre confiné et sequestré par les forces de l’Obscurantisme.

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 The Open Studios or Portes Ouvertes de Belleville  and those of the Prè Saint-Gervais, performers including Berlin’s Constanza Macras, Portugal’s Vera Mantero, a major exhibition devoted to Camille Pissarro paintings rarely seen in France, Belgium’s Alain Platel, Spain’s Israel Galvan, Crystal Pite — these are just a few of the major cultural happenings in Paris and environs this Spring that the Arts Voyager and Dance Insider will be able to cover with your support.

Many of you first read about these internationally renowned artists and events for the first time in English in our journals and, continuing our 20-year mission of bringing you stories not told elsewhere, we’ll also be reporting on Giulio D’Anna, a Netherlands-based Italian choreographer whose “OOOOOOO” is inspired by Zagreb’s “Museum of Broken Relationships,” and Jasna Vinovrski’s “Lady Justice,” addressing the relationship between justice and art. Speaking of art, we’d also like to bring you Yasmina Reza’s “Art” as interpreted at the Theatre de la Bastille by the pioneering Belgium theater company STAN . And of intersections between art and society, this year’s Chantiers (Building Projects) d’Europe festival at the Theatre de la Ville features countries in the front lines of the refugee crisis, notably in six short films from Greece addressing this topic and a public brainstorming session with artists from six countries. Most of all we’ll be able to bring you into the studios of the 200+ artists taking part in the Open Studios of Belleville — a neighborhood which in its very MULTI-CULTURAL contours and dimensions provides the best retort to the cloistered vision of French culture represented by the National Front. (We share the FN’s stated pride in traditional French culture; we simply argue that this definition is too limited and does not do justice to the grandeur and ouverture to the world that has always been French culture.) Click here to read our coverage of last year’s Open Studios / Portes Ouvertes de Belleville.

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France, too, is at the crossroads. On May 7  the country will choose between the fear represented by the National Front and the hope and optimism represented by Emmanuel Macron. Between closure and opening. In the campaign between these two ‘cultures’ that has raged in this country for the past two years, CULTURE has been all but forgotten. (Among Macron’s refreshing ideas: More library hours.) With your help, we will be able to do our part in restoring some light to what has always been France’s principal calling card around the world. Our calling for more than 20 years.Many thanks and



A show you won’t see in Donald Trump’s America

iranians-cover Elham Korda in Afsaneh Mahian’s production of Mahin Sadri’s “Every day a little bit more.” Reza Ghaziani photo copyright Reza Ghaziani and courtesy Theatre de la Ville.

Copyright 2015, 2017 Paul Ben-Itzak

On Friday January 27, 2017, United States president Donald Trump issued an executive order barring from entering the United States for 90 days all citizens from seven countries with majority Muslim populations: Iran, Iraq, Somalia, Yemen, Libya, Syria, and the Sudan. On Friday night, refugees who had already been granted visas were detained at U.S. airports, among them, the New York Times reported, Hameed Khalid Darweesh,  who worked for the U.S. government for 10 years in Iraq. On Saturday, after thousands turned out at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport to protest the detentions, a federal judge issued an emergency ruling annuling the detentions, but not the decree. If  Mr. Trump’s order stays in effect, among the artists you’ll never see in the United States are the extraordinary Iranian actresses I had the privilège of seeing and reviewing here in this article first published on November 4, 2015. PS: There are, of course, larger implications of Mr. Trump’s action: On the cusp of World War II, a ship carrying Jewish refugees fleeing Hitler’s Europe was turned away from New York Harbor, the  Jews sent back to face certain death. Never again.

PARIS — As I watched Afseneh Mahian’s production of Mahin Sadri’s reality-based play, “Every day a little bit more,”  unfold Monday night at the Theatre de la Ville’s Abbesses Theater in Montmartre, I could not stop thinking: Why aren’t we seeing this (Iranian production) in the United States? Why is the U.S. instead actually fining the French bank BNP Paribas $8.9 billion for breaking the arbitrary American embargos against Iran and the Sudan, while the French are bringing Iranian artists to Paris to talk about other things besides Islam, terrorism, nuclear weapons, Syria, Shi’ites, Sunnis, Salafism, Wahabiism, Wassabiism, fatwahs, anti-Semitism, ayatollahs, oil, censorship, bans, and other subjects which do exist but which are not the sole facet of the Iranian-Persian (or even Muslim) identity, just as gun violence and white against black racial killings are not the only element of the American identity? Even if  what’s derisively referred to here as “multi-culturalism” may get a bad rap from some sectors of French punditry, fueled by misplaced fear that it dimishes instead of enchancing the national identity, when it comes to cultural vectors —  in this case, director Emmanuel Demarcy-Mota and his Theatre de la Ville team — there’s no contest: the French are infinitely more open to the world. And the pay-off is infinite. Thanks to Demarcy-Mota and these incredibly earnest and sincere artists, now whenever I hear “Iranian nuclear threat” or skepticism about Iran’s motivations in Syria, behind the word “Iranian” I can see not just ayatollic machinations and troglodyte conservativism but a people with the exact same concerns as the rest of us.

Even as I was slipping into my usual critical aloofness Monday and ‘judging’ “Every day a little bit more” on dramatic criteria, I kept pinching myself in disbelief that I was actually watching three Iranian women and their Iranian theater company permitted into the country like any other troupe to depict universal human dramas, something I could never be watching if I were in the United States. (Author’s note, 1/29/2017: When this article was original published in 2015, an American reader disputed this contention. Under Mr. Trump’s new order though, in 2017 there’s no doubt.) You may think I’m exaggerating, but when afterwards I asked Elham Korda (in English; for a people supposedly weaned on hate for “the Great Satan,” they have an amazing proclivity for speaking its mother tongue; among the Iranian contingent at the after-party Monday, English was more pre-dominant than Farsi or French) — who plays the widow of real-life martyr Major General Abbas Doran, who crashed his plane, fatally hit by Iraqi fire, into the Baghdad hotel where Saddam Hussein was planning a meeting of the non-aligned movement to send the message that Iraq was winning its war with Iran — if the play, also touring to Vienna and Brussels, would be going to the United States, she just smiled ironically.

iranians-twoElham Korda and Setareh Eskandari in Afsaneh Mahian’s production of Mahin Sadri’s “Every day a little bit more.” Reza Ghaziani photo copyright Reza Ghaziani and courtesy Theatre de la Ville.

In this context it almost feels banal re-hashing the stories of the three women, involving, besides Korda’s older war widow, Baran Kosari’s mountain-climber and Setareh Eskandari’s mistress of a soccer star / wife murderer. What matters more — and I’m embarassed that my French colleagues won’t feel as obsessed with this point and will feel more free to examine the play itself without being distracted by the political externals — is that, like film-maker Abbas Kiarostami’s 1997 “Taste of the Cherry,” Mahian and Sadri, through the vessels of their credible interpreters and enabled by the Theatre de la Ville reveal Iranians as normal human beings with concerns we can all relate to. (Spoiler alert.)

Tragic ending aside, for example, Kosari’s measuring up to the male rappelers on her team reminded me of the Brady Bunch episode where Marcia decides to join the Boy Scouts for a foraging expedition and holds her own with the guys, only Marcia got more winded that Kosari’s character, based on the real-life story of the first Iranian woman to scale various mountain-tops. Korda’s character (the reason I keep referring to the actresses’ characters is that none of them were given names, just as they never got to consume the scrumptious dinner — you could smell the spicy aromas mounting as the meat sizzled — they prepared live in a real kitchen set up on stage), meanwhile, could have been an American war widow holding out hope that her husband’s body not being recovered meant he could miraculously show up any day. There are particular exceptions, confirming that Iranian women still have a long way to go: Her husband’s pension goes not to her but his father, she getting a quarter of the amount — with the precision that it’s to be devoted to the costs of raising their son, the male life still priming. And while it’s not entirely clear whether she or the soccer hero has killed his wife, Eskandari as his mistress agrees to his request that she take the fall after his ultimately false assurance that he’ll get her spared from the death penalty. But the very noting of these sexist conditions belies the notion that the Iranian government will censure anything critical of its society and policies; “Every day a little bit more” was not only presented at this year’s Tehran International Theater Festival, it won the awards for best original text and best actresses.

If I have a criticism, it’s not of the acting itself, which was appropriately direct and accordingly unembellished and dramatic when called for, but of the oddity that while the three heroines’ stories were interlaced, there wasn’t a lot of actual interaction between them; rather they related their tales directly to the audience. But the correspondence between the three journeys was clear: In one fashion or another, while each was paired with an evident male hero — the soccer player, the male mountaineering champion, the fighter pilot — in each case it could be argued that the woman’s exploits were more enduringly heroic. The mistress paid the price for her lover’s infidelity to and possible murder of his wife (the conviction and horrifyingly graphic precision of her confession makes it hard to tell if she’s making it up to cover him or really committed the act; the text could be more clear here); the mountaineer was the one ostracized (including by her own mother) after her male partner’s fatal decision to allow the participation of a mountaineer not in a state to be climbing in their expedition; and unlike him, even the martyr’s widow didn’t choose her path but had it imposed on her, and given that society treated her almost like a sub-survivor whose suffering wasn’t as important as her father in law’s or son’s, her crucible was more unjust and more enduring. It might even be argued that, in the sense that it required bucking state authority, her refusal to have her husband’s empty uniform buried in his grave for want of a real corpse demanded just as much courage. These are martyrs in their own right whose stories are as meritorious as those of the men to whose orbits they were inevitably tethered.

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November 13, 2015: Frontline, Paris — The year when living became dangerous

(Revised from its initial publication on November 16, 2015, direct from Belleville, Paris. Bataclan was re-opened last night, November 12, in a benefit performance for survivor associations, by Sting, with “How Fragile we are.” In unity, strength. De l’union, la force.)

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2015, 2016

“Don’t say a prayer for me now
Save it ’til the morning after.”

— Duran-Duran, reprised by Eagles of Death Metal, performing November 13 at Bataclan, Paris

“We know the children who begin the youth of loss greater than they can dream now.”
— Wendell Berry, “November 26, 1963”

“C’est pas rien, les mots.” (Words are not nothing.)                                                                                –Antoine Leiris, whose wife was killed at Bataclan on November 13, 2015, author of “You will not have my hate” (Vous n’aurez pas ma haine.), in an interview broadcast November 13, 2016 on France Inter radio.

PARIS — Imagine if, instead of the Twin Towers, Mohammed Attah and his gang (can we stop calling Da’esh the “Islamic State”? It’s like calling the Mafia “The Good Catholics Club”) had struck City Center and instantly killed 90 spectators and held 1400 others hostage, simultaneously mowing down diners at Veselka and four other cafes. This is what happened here Friday night, when the terrorists struck down 89 fans of an American rock band known for reprising a Duran-Duran hit and 41 others at restaurants and cafes in neighboring quarters of the 10th and 11th arrondissements here in the East of Paris, as well as the Stade de France in the suburb of St.-Denis. The massacres, as mayor Anne Hidalgo pointed out Saturday, were hardly random, “It’s the Paris of vivre ensemble (living together) which was attacked.” As it happened, I was in the area Thursday night, first at a group exhibition at the three-floor Bastille Design Center on the Boulevard Richard-Lenoir whose highlight was a display that humanized the migrants by putting their visages on postage stamps (suggesting they could bypass the migratory ordeal by simply mailing themselves to Sanctuary); later returning from the Theatre de la Bastille after seeing Vincent Thomasset’s take on Julien Previeux’s “Lettres de Non-motivation,” which treats the unemployment crisis at the root of Europeans’ most legitimate fears of an influx of migrants in a humorous fashion, with a series of letters responding to job ads in which the correspondent explains why he will not be able to accept the job not yet offered to him. The last time I was at Bataclan was in 2003, covering a demonstration by striking freelance or intermittent artists, protesting proposed reductions in their unemployment compensation. Angry that the private nightclub had not joined other theaters in honoring the strike, they were there to cajole ticket-holders to go home and to good-naturedly try to get the featured pop singer to cancel, chanting, “Michel Jonasz, avec nous!” The theater management ultimately relented, but even if it hadn’t, the protestors would have simply continued their demonstration — without resorting to violence.

All this is how civilized, normal people respond to societal problems. And it’s just this, a society which has set up a civilized system for dealing with disagreements, processing conflicts, and accommodating difference — vivre ensemble, en effet — which Da’esh, in its nihilism, is out to destroy. (A French artist friend commented that the problem is “We are brought up respecting life, and with a fear of dying; they don’t have that fear.” But I think it goes deeper than this: They also don’t see their victims as humans whose lives have any value. Another trait the French — and all civilized people — strive for, at their best, is empathy.)

On a deeper level, what they want to infect the rest of us with by these massacres is a lack of faith, a sense of meaninglessness and hopelessness. Why go out, why see art, why have a drink with your friend on a cafe terrace — why do whatever profiting from life means for you — if you might get killed doing so, for no reason? Initially, I was afraid they’d succeeded with me; I felt numb. I couldn’t even confront that these murderers’ barbaries were no longer happening someplace else (I was not in Paris during the Charlie and kosher super-market killings), but around my neighborhood, on all the streets that are part of my daily routine; two of the cafes, the Little Cambodia and the Carillon, are at the intersection of the rues Bichat and Alibert, which I pass by whenever I walk from Belleville to the Canal Saint-Martin. Two others – including le Bon Biere, a nondescript brasserie where the Mexican-American college student Noemie Gonzalez was killed – face each other on a catty corner near my treasured Canal St.-Martin, on the street that leads up to Belleville, the rue de Temple.  I’ve strolled along the Boulevard Richard-Lenoir heading up from that spot on the canal for 15 years, perusing antique fairs or en route to the Theatre de la Bastille, but also because this street — where Simenon’s fictional Commissaire Maigret ‘lived’ — is part of the Paris myth for me. (Maigret, who was never just interested in finding the culpable, but in understanding his psychology — the reasons he killed, even though they were not reasonable — would be stymied by this particular case and might not even want to probe the mental morass of these terrorists.) It’s at the boulevard Richard-Lenoir where the Canal goes underground, resurfacing at the Arsenal of the Bastille before connecting to the Seine. (Before these recent attacks, the closest I’d ever come in Paris to taking my life in my hands was walking across the narrow lock separating the two fleuves. Today it feels like my life is no longer my own.)

It’s this beauty which these Obscurantists (even that term today seems feeble, because it sounds like someone just turning out a light, and masks the carnage, the ‘body parts everywhere’ evoked by witnesses, which these devils wreaked) are after, and it’s this beauty which finally broke my numbness when, Sunday morning, I walked up to and through the parc Belleville. First it was, simply and literally, the light: The late morning brilliance of the Sun reflecting off the multi-colored autumnal leaves. Then, when I reached the belvedere, it was looking out on the Eiffel Tower and other landmarks – and light-houses(phares) —  of ‘les Lumieres’ like the Pompidou Museum of Modern Art as well as the Pantheon, where are enterred artists like Zola and Hugo who confronted societal problems not with swords but minds, as well as Marie Curie, who cured diseases and, most recently admitted, resistants to the Nazi Occupation. But more immediately, in the park which descends several city blocks of this neighborhood in which Chinese, Arab, African, and even some American and English immigrants live together along with artists and BoBos (bourgeoise Bohemians), you see the plaza beneath and descending from that, a rectangular fountain, terminating in a circle, drained for the Fall. Spotting a man leading about a dozen students in Tai Chi or Tai Kwon Do exercises and demonstrating combat ‘rules,’ I thought: No more rules. But then hearing and seeing children of all colors playing, laughing, and yelling, I finally lost it and started to cry. First, because of their blissful ignorance. A week ahead of November 21, I thought of Wendell Berry’s “November 26, 1963,” a tattered copy of the book of which, illustrated by Ben Shahn and given to me on my third birthday, I still retain, the words, “We know the children who begin the youth of loss greater than they can dream now” even more potentially prophetic now than they were after President Kennedy’s assassination. (Also prophetic was the inscription of the family friend who gave it to me: “Who can understand the minds of men” who commit acts like this.) And I cried because Paris, or the idea and ideal of Paris — beauty, thought and reflection, art, and, yes, even the sometimes (verbally) violent, or vigorous confrontation of ideas — this is what Paris represents not just to Parisians but the world. When one child announced to his father, “Well, at least it’s sunny,” I didn’t know whether to be re-assured or discouraged that this was all the boy had the right to expect, to be content with.

These days, and like everywhere, Paris can also represent polemic and political recuperation. (Without yet monitoring the response of politicians in the U.S. — in whch I exclude Barack Obama, whose solidarity has been exemplary and without political connivance — I assume some of this recuperation is already going on among right-wing politicians in the U.S.) In 2003, marching here against the U.S.-lead invasion of Iraq (one of whose consequences was the firing of the Bathe officers of Saddam’s army many of whom now make up the cadres of Da’esh; I am really trying to avoid any polemics in this piece, but as an American writing in part for a French audience, I think it’s important to take some responsibility and own up that this is not just a “European” crisis), I was unnerved when, at one of the marches, a group wearing armbands from one of the unions muscled us out of the way so they could get to the front of the march, as I was by the various banners advertising political parties and other unions.

So it was that I was heartened on returning to the top of the parc Belleville Sunday evening to watch the Sun setting over the Eiffel. When I first noticed the larger than usual crowd I thought it was another food distribution organized by an association that supports Balkan immigrants. But no, it was just ordinary Parisians, and — judging by the different languages — tourists gathering. Not an organized demonstration of solidarity, no signs, and no political recuperations. Just people like me who felt the need not to watch television replays and endless if well-meaning coverage, but just to be reminded of what we’re here for, of the things they can’t kill — and to search for this solidarity, this fellowship in Paris’s most cosmopolitan of neighborhoods. As I leaned against one of the railings looking out at the purple and gold deepening sky (“Look, there’s even green!” one boy said to his father) setting over the Eiffel, I heard and saw next to me an elegant young French man with a Johnny Depp van dyke, long hair, and top-hat speaking with a young blonde Dutch woman — in English. When he opened up his aluminum thermos and poured a couple of cups of something hot, I opened mine and, after filling my plastic cup with fresh mint tea, lifted it to them and proposed, “Tchin.” “Santé, Monsieur,” the man answered steadily. “We need it especially now.”

We also need artists. The government will strike back against these murderers, as they should. They will institute more protection measures, which should strike the proverbial balance between protecting our lives and the values which Da’esh is trying to kill. (I think President Francois Hollande gets this, announcing succinctly that it’s our freedom they’re after.) But we will also depend on artists to defy these Obscurantists, these worshippers at the shrine of death — and after this attack on a theater, for both artists and audience, continuing to create art and patronize the arts is a form of defiance — and keep reminding us of what we’re fighting for: culture, light, the right to debate, the prism art offers us and which is not always one-dimensional….

And we will depend on artists to help us remember to laugh, even at the problems society is faced with. In this context, Vincent Thomasset’s dramatization — and physicalization — of Julien Previeux’s book “Lettres de Non-motivation,” compiled of his responses to real job announcements in which he informs the employer why he will, unfortunately, be unable to take the position (not yet offered him), is an acid take on the bitter situation in which so many find themselves today, chiefly applying for jobs with employers who rarely bother to respond any more, or who reply with form letters. This last fact is born out immediately by the large proportion of prospective employers — their help wanted ads variously projected on a compact upstage screen or read out loud by the actors or pre-recorded — who reply to the often sarcastic ‘Lettres of non-engagement’ with notes saying, essentially, We regret but despite your high qualifications, we are unable to offer you the job. In other words, form letters which reveal the disdain so many employers have for the out of work.

If one of the challenges Thomasset, also a choreographer, set himself was that of theatricalizing a literary albeit humorous work, he mostly succeeded, largely thanks to the diverse talents of his five-person cast. In the most original response, Johann Cuny informs a company advertising for a high-tech position that he is writing them from the year 2065, where unemployment is at 78 percent, and where consequently a whole separate unemployment office has been created to find jobs in the past, thanks to a time transporter, before concluding that as the machine is malfunctioning and the time transporter repair-man is stuck in 1962, he will be unable to accept the job. As he recites his more or less straight response, the multi-talented dynamo known as Michele Gurtner, standing next to him, makes clickety-clackety sounds accompanied by robotic arm movements, indicating that this is the way people talk in the future. Later, Gurtner only slightly shifts gears to reply to another ad as if she is an android made to please. This powerhouse performer then again alters her dramatic tempo to deliver an employer’s (real) formulaic response a la Sarah Bernhardt, by the end rendering the traditional French business closing “I assure you of my sentiments the most distinguished” as if it’s the culmination of a tragic drama, breaking down in tears and collapsing over Cuny, who had earlier delivered the non-engagement letter she’s responding to.

The teaser comes with the cloying, husky-voiced Anne Steffans’s ebulliently danced response (mimicking a cheerleader routine) describing the letter she wrote about how perfect she is for the given position and how she’d love to take it — before announcing that when she woke up in the morning the letter had disappeared and “perhaps it will get to you under someone else’s signature,” a line taken up as a choral refrain by the rest of the cast (also including David Arribe) before “Lettres of Non-engagement” ends, as it must, with the stoic bearded Francis Lewyllie reciting the ultimate of non-engagement letters, as might Melville’s Bartleby (inscribed in the minds of school-children here as in the U.S.), enumerating why he’d prefer not to do all the tasks required by the job.

Unfortunately, as of Friday, November 13, “Je prefere pas” — to go out to the theater, regale on the terrace of a cafe — has become a tempting option. “I prefer not” to be *engaged* — in the French sense of the word (which means ‘committed’), less.

“Lettres of Non-engagement,” co-produced by the Theatre de la Bastille, the Festival d’Automne, and several other presenters around France, continues through November 21 at the Theatre de la Bastille, in the Bastille, where Parisians will, defiantly, continue laughing and arguing on the many café terraces —parce qu’il faut continué.

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.


Sans votre soutein, ce ne sera pas possible. Pour savoir comment faire un don, vous pouvez nous contacté a: N.B.: On cherche aussi un logement a Paris pour 2-3 mois… ca peut nous aidé aussi d’etre sur place et ecrit sur vos efforts artistique!🙂 PS: Et on est ouverte a habité dans les autres villes en France ou d’ailleurs, au condition qu’il y a un scene artistique sur laquelle on peut ecrit. PPS: On est prete a echangé des services aussi pour le logement: Traduction sites artistique francais en anglais, DJ, etc…..

Cross Country / A Memoir of France, 9: Smoke gets in your eyes

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

(Like what you’re reading? Please make a contribution so that we can continue this work and return to Paris this fall to cover the local artist and gallery scene. Contact us at . (If the link doesn’t work, please paste that address into your e-mail browser.) Ca vous plait notre journal? S’il vous plait a faire un don, ca qui nous permite a revenir a Paris cette automne pour pouvoir continué d’ecrit sur la scene artistic a Paris, surtout au niveau des artistes et galeries dit ‘local’ (du quartiere). Vous pouvez nous contacter a . (Si le lien ne marche pas, simplement copier cette addresse a votre messagerie.)

In Montparnasse with Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and Amelie

(NB: On peut aussi lire ce chapitre avant le chapitre 8, qui fait reference a l’episode anti-Semitic dans ce chapitre.  This chapter can also be read before chapter 8, which refers to the anti-Semitic episode in this chapter.)

At first glance, F. Scott Fitzgerald and me come from completely different, if not exactly opposed, milieux: He the WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant) prep-school Midwest of St. Paul, me the assimilated Northern California Jew, educated at Mission High, the most multi-cultural secondary institution at the time, the late 1970s. But our paths converged and mine began to echo his when I started Princeton in the fall of 1979, ready to learn. (This chapter started ominously enough, with Hurricane Frederick having levelled much of the foilage on the New Jersey campus before I arrived.) If like every other freshman I’d boned up on the fantasy by reading Fitzgerald’s coming of age novel “This Side of Paradise,” in which the hero, like Fitzgerald, finds the intellectual stimulation he’s seeking in a best friend modelled after Edmund Wilson a.k.a. the American mind at mid-century, but doesn’t quite cross the finish line (Fitzgerald’s own trajectory and eventually mine; another drop-out from Old Nassau, Eugene O’Neill, would declare that “Princeton is tradition-bound”), the novel which more pertinently expresses the culture clash both of us confronted as children of the West trying to ford the East is “The Great Gatsby.” We arrived open-minded and direct, not quite prepared for the sophistication and subterfuge of the East. Later, living in a bungalow near Mystic, Connecticut on the other side of Long Island Sound during an early newspaper job and promenading on the pier, I sometimes saw a green light peering through the mist from the other side of the water which I was sure was Gatsby’s.

If like any other American arriving in Paris for the past 100 years I immediately set about looking for the traces of Fitzgerald and Hemingway when I arrived for good in the Summer-Fall of 2001, my status differed from theirs in one important facet: I was alone, with no Hadley to cook my pidgeons stealthily killed at the Luxembourg Gardens (as did a penniless and famished Hemingway) and no Zelda to serve as my playmate. If I was to have a social life and hope to have a love life (not for me non plus the sordid midnight Clichy rambles of Henry Miller, nor the clandestine anonymous gay encounters in the bushes of the Tuileries gardens of Edmund White), I had to look to an earlier generation for role models – and this too was not to promising.  When it came to finding love with a French woman, in the coming 15 years I’d often identify less with a determined Gene Kelly literally sweeping a doe-eyed Leslie Caron off her feet and dancing on the banks of the Seine in the shadow of Notre Dame than with Lambert Strether, the middle-aged hero of Henry James’s “The Ambassadors,” meeting a potential mate only to butt his head and heart against lingering class and Old World – New World distinctions that even my American can-do spirit and inveterate optimism couldn’t demolish. But I didn’t yet know this in the late summer-fall of 2001, when my second Parisian abode, in a ’60s-era high-rise next door to the Pasteur Institute (where AIDS, the virus of love in the 20th century, had been discovered), put me within skipping distance of Montparnasse, from which the elixir of Fitz and Papa still wafted over. Jogging every morning past the Place Camille Claudel (named after the doomed sculptress who was at the same time Rodin’s pupil and his superior) down to the Luxembourg Gardens, I looked surreptitiously around at the giant pigeons and wondered if I could get away with deftly stuffing one under a bench, breaking its neck, and taking it home for dinner, as Hemingway had done. (No doubt carrying it back up hill to his apartment off the rue Mouffetard in the upper Latin Quarter, where he lived in the early ’20s. In the early 2000s, when I used to mouffe tard — circulate late — on the narrow streets around Mouffetard not far from the Pantheon and the restless bones of Zola and Madame Curie, a withered, shrunken gnome surveyed traffic from a lower window of Hemingway’s building on the rue Cardinal Lemoine; I fantasized that she might have been there as an urchin when Hemingway was dining on pigeon marmotte upstairs.) But, perhaps symbolizing the gulf between my 2000s reality and Hemingway’s 1920s Parisian moveable feast, the only dead pigeon I found at the Luxembourg was a bird which keeled over on its own of old age and whose carcass lay rotting for months in the murky pond of the Medici fountain, as the granite gods above the alabaster lovers bathing nearby tried not to notice.

Next I tried to recreate the intellectual ferment my ancestors must have encountered, insisting that Sabine accompany me to the theater and cinema complex Le Lucenaire on the rue Madame (where Camus had lived during the war) near the Luxembourg to see the latest flick from Jean-Luc Godard, “Eloge d’amour,” in which the co-founder of the Nouvelle Vague starts at the end, in black and white film, and ends in the beginning, in digital color, along the way squeezing in a five-minute diatribe against the Speilbergization of the cinema. Used to lines around the block in New York for new Godard releases, and this one having just premiered at Cannes, I was shocked to find the film screening in the complex’s tiniest room, where we were among just ten people watching it on a miniscule screen. I, speaking hardly any French and comprehending even less, was on the edge of my seat for the entire film, whereas Sabine, an actual French actress, clown, and theater teacher and producer, couldn’t stop fidgeting and running her hands through her in exasperation. When I later asked a French film-maker, Laury Granier, why Godard was more popular in anti-intellectual America than in intellectual France, he blamed it on the big Yank movie exporters, who he said made French distributors accept nine blockbusters for every art house film,  thus monopolizing French screens. And added that Godard, who (according to him) wasn’t French anyway, being born to Swiss parents (albeit in France!), was too intellectual for many French people. (While the distinction of race is just about outlawed in France – a product of the Deportation, in which many of the 74,000 sent to the death camps, including 11,000 children, were collected by French officials — some French parse it by posing the question thusly: “Vous etes de quelle origin?,” which I guess is more acceptable according to Cartesian reasoning because it’s simply factual.)

Determined to at least track the ghosts of Fitzgerald and Hemingway even if I couldn’t immediately retrieve the yeasty intellectual spirit which infused their times – this got easier once my French got better and I discovered that in Paris anyway, an intellectual is more likely to be loitering on a corner than a taxi-cab — I finally made my way to the rue Delambre off the boulevard Montparnasse, searching for the bar-brasserie where the Mutt & Jeff of early 20th century American literature had met for the first time. (And by the way, it was Hemingway who said “The rich are different from you and me,” and Fitzgerald who answered, “Yes, they have more money,” not the other way around, no matter what the Hemingway propagandists tell you.) There were several candidates, none decisive; the name of the bar had long-since changed several times. So I finally settled on the bar Hemingway and Fitzgerald might have met at if they were still here in 2001: “Smoke,” where the pony-tailed Asian-origin bartender was a dead ringer for Wayne Wang, who directed the Brooklynesque film of the same name and where, in honor of Hemingway, I lit up my first Cuban, a Romeo y Juliet, scored from the smoke shop next door to Le Dome, where Hemingway, Fitz, Gertrude Stein, and Picasso getting soused on Pernod and whiskey had long-since been supplanted by elderly solitary matrons drinking frothy infusions of tea. “It’s my first Cuban!” I announced to ‘Wayne.” “We’re not allowed to smoke these in my country!” It was the best cigar I’d ever tasted, and I repeated the act leaning on the balcony railing of my seventh-floor apartment in the Godardian building next to the Institute Pasteur while marveling at the illuminated Eiffel Tower which seemed to be less than a hundred feet away; blowing the fumes into the midnight mist over the Seine while leaning on one of its ramparts on the Left Bank; and as a defense mechanism whenever I found myself out-flanked by cigarette-toking Frenchmen and women at a party, having discovered that my cigar tended to cancel out their cigarettes. From the floor-to-ceiling window of my apartment, I could easily see through other windows across the way. One night I spotted a flabby balding older man walking around in his undies; another night a younger couple started — the woman beckoning the man to “Lookee here Pierre!” — after seeing flabby me working at my computer in mine. Below this couple was the gay male pair I often saw doing the dishes together, and occasional flashes through curtain openings of a solitary tall woman in a gown cooking her lonely meals. All of these frescoes seemed pulled from Godard (who in turn had probably lifted them from Hitchcock), reminding me of a photo for a Godard film festival I used to have taped to the window of my W. 8th Street Greenwich Village apartment of an Anna Karina-like woman gazing sadly from the window of a similarly drab building. Bonjour tristesse.

Lest you think I spent all my time walking around like an American in Zombie Paris, spying on my neighbors or exhibiting for them, I also had a more banal task to bring me back to 2001 reality: The Pasteur flat was only a temporary lodging, and I had to find a more permanent one soon. Mornings I descended the Boulevard Pasteur to the Seine, heading left along the water until I came to the American Church, where housing possibilities were posted on a bulletin board. The most interesting prospect I found was an apartment further down on the Seine, near the Pont Grenelle, which was the only pad I’d ever seen with views of both he Eiffel Tower (the real) and the Statue of Liberty (a replica made at the same time as the original, stationed on the island which joined the Pont Grenelle to the Right Bank). It was owned by a couple of gay retired New York City school-teachers who rented it out 11 months of the year. The only drawback of the apartment was that because of the floor-to-ceiling windows which made up two of its walls, whenever the bateaux mouches — the tourist boats — passed by at night and cast their headlights on the banks of the Seine, you became a star. On another occasion, I checked out a musty apartment on the rue Tardieu, decorated with dusty faux Louis XVI furniture, across the street from the Place Suzanne Valadon at the base of the winding park which descends from Sacre Coeur in Montmartre. The woman who answered the phone had assured me that my scant French would not pose a problem; the elderly man who greeted me and assessed me suspicously from head to shoes suddenly decided it was. I had had my first encounter with latent anti-Semitism. I found a phone booth and called Sabine, explaining what had happened. “Paul, ne t’inquiete pas, don’t worry, I will call the man and explain that if your French is really the problem I can always help. Call me back in five minutes.” Then: “Paul, I told him, but he still doesn’t want to rent you the apartment. I think you are right about the anti-Semitism. It’s too bad, there are still people in France like this, but don’t worry, you will find something better.”

Finally I found, not an apartment, but a girl.

“Hello, my name is Benedicte,” began the voicemail message. “I am friends with Michel. He told me you are looking for an apartment and I am leaving my flat in the 15th, not far from you, so I thought maybe this might interest you.”

The apartment didn’t — the neighborhood was too drab and more family- then single-oriented — but the girl did. Her sing-song voice, infused with romantic possibility by my Truffaut-induced fantasies of a providential encounter with the love of my life, inspired me into action. “To tell you the truth, I’m not looking in that neighborhood, but perhaps we could meet for a coffee or a drink?” Unbeknownst to me, Benedicte, a banker, was also being worked on, by her own film-induced fantasies of a semi-providential encounter with the love of her life, these induced by the new hit movie “The Fabulous Destiny of Amelie Poulain” (the truncated translation of the title to “Amelie” for American audiences also decapitated the story’s meaning by removing the word ‘destiny’ and the promise of an equally fabulous destiny it held out to the millions of Amelie’s real-life contemporaries, that just around the corner there was a shy discarded photo recuperator waiting to rescue them from their mundane interminable working-grind lives).

Instead of the photo recuperator, Benedicte got a Fitzgerald recuperator, moi, showing up for our rendez-vous — at a multi-plex cinema on the Boulevard Montparnasse to see ‘Amelie’ — in a colorful but holey Canal Jeans sweater with a red rose in his hand. As for Benedicte, the character from Truffaut’s Antoine Doinel cycle she most resembled was ‘Peggy Proper,’ as Antoine referred to his first wife (Claude Jade), her dirty blonde hair in a tight bun over tiny eyes made owlish by big thick-framed half-moon glasses. Benedicte was shorter than Claude Jade and more somber, her lips, under an efficient nose, seeming to have settled into a resigned gloom, as if at 33 she was reconciled to a predictable life; only a pink scarf betrayed a boiling heart yearning for something unexpected. (Instead, she was about to find someone unpredictable.) The approach she decided on for me was to treat me as her French student, instructing me in both social mores and the native language. After ‘Amelie’ I took her to Smoke, where the food wasn’t quite up to the Cuban cigar or the Albert King blues playing on the jukebox. When I asked for a doggie bag to take home the rest of my beef bourguignon, Benedicte frowned. “This is not something that’s done in France.” “But to me this seems like a compliment. By asking to take the rest of the food home, I’m saying that it’s not because I don’t like it that I’m not finishing it, but because I’m full.” The waitress returned with a clump of carelessly wrapped tin-foil and dropped it disdainfully on the soiled table-cloth in front of me.

It was a far cry from Fitzgerald and Hemingway’s first encounter on the same street, but without a Zelda or Hadley by my side, I had no choice but to try to breach the barrier between French women and American men, to make like Kelly courting Caron and blithely dance on, ignoring the lessons of Lambert Strether, a 21st century ambassador of Love, American Style.