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Cross Country / A Memoir of France
8: Lost in Translation

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2011 Paul Ben-Itzak

Torn between two Martas

When a white French person tells you a neighborhood is dangerous, often what s/he really means by 'dangerous' is 'There are a lot of French Arabs there.' (Except that the white French person would just call them 'Arabs,' regardless of how many generations their families have been implanted in France.) I hadn't yet realized this false equivalence when I moved to France in the summer of 2001, so that when I found myself, less than a week after my arrival, taking a midnight stroll down what I'd been warned was the most 'dangerous' street in the most 'dangerous' town in France, Montpellier, flanked on both sides of the street by swarthy male citizens whose eyes were riveted on me, I felt like I was running a gauntlet. I nonetheless wore the widest possible grin on my face because in front of me, carrying my DJ equipment between them and holding my life in their hands were the real objects of the local attention, two gorgeous ladies from Spain, Marta (a glittering blonde of 28) y Marta (a lithesome and winsome brunette of 22). I'd first spotted Marta y Marta the night before at La Chapelle, an underground performance space in a converted chapel in the gypsy section of this town between the southwest and southeast of the country, where I'd convinced the experimental music artist who ran the place to let me spin. This was enough of a connection so that when we ran into each other the next day at a dance performance in another church downtown, we struck up a conversation after the performance, over chilled red wine poured from a carafe. More than anything else, I'd come to France in search of the femme de ma vie. If I'd have known then what I finally accepted 10 years later about the impossibility of me and French women breaching the culture gap as well as the sexual divide -- if men are from Mars and women are from Venus, French women are a Mars-Venus hybrid and a formidable opponent for a Californian man from Venus -- I would have followed the Martas straight back to Madrid and would probably be presiding today over a casa of little Martas and Pablos, instead of chasing after the eternally elusive Sophie. But more on her later.

Infused with courage by the cold red wine, I'd invited the Martas to join me at a performance that same night at les Ursulines, the headquarters (on the rue Louis Blanc across the street from the Centre Social Martin Luther King Jr) of the dance festival I was putatively in Montpellier to cover. Afterwards we wandered the narrow rues of the old city that, if you don't mind meandering around hilly medieval labyrinths, eventually connects the rue Louis Blanc and lower Montpellier with the Place de la Comedie and the city's heights, munching on tielles Setoise, a savory pastry stuffed with octopus and tomatoes and the specialty of the neighboring Mediterranean port town Sete, blowing German bubbles I'd had flown in from my step-mother's soap store in San Francisco ("Common Scents") from the Corinthian temple overlooking the grand aqueduct, and in general comporting ourselves in a rowdy manner that marked us as distinctly un-French. At the end of the evening, before they departed from La Chapelle, I gave Marta y Marta my e-mail and returned to my destiny of semi-fatale femmes francaises.

Returning to Montpellier the next summer for the same dance festival, I burst into tears as I made my way down through the old city to les Ursulines, missing Marta y Marta and regretting that I hadn't been more courageous and asked for their e-mail addresses, let alone made an actual pass. Marc, the man with the waffles and cappuccino boutique on the rue Louis Blanc -- 10 francs for a combo of both! -- was still there, merci a Dieu, to provide some stability. (By the next summer he was gone, chased out by the French tax laws which claimed 60 percent of his income.) Having spent a decade creating the concept while expatriated in Australia, he'd warned me, after I'd complimented his cappuccino, that most French café-tenders were blasé about how they prepared their coffee, and he was right. Most baristas, my experience over the next nine years would bear out, slop it into thimble-sized cups which might make you think you're getting espresso-caliber potency but don't be deceived, it's weak and tepid, more milky brown than cobalt black. If you like it thick and strong as mud, you'll have a better shot if you ask for 'café a l'Italienne.' Another trick for a poor man's café creme: Request a noisette, coffee topped off -- when done right -- with foam from steamed milk. Same price as a normal coffee. I once stopped going to Le Valmy, my regular café on the Canal St. Martin, only in part because my barista buddy Djamel had quit; his replacement made the mistake of sullenly serving my noisette with cold milk poured straight from the carton. It was a year before I was back... just in time to befriend the new barista, Djianne, the girl I grew up dreaming of, full of life and glowing with Mediterranean beauty, the heritage of a Moroccan mother and Algerian father.

Speaking of exotic women -- and returning us to Montpellier in that second summer of 2002: Trying to rally from the loss of Marta y Marta, and needing to do some work, one night I decided to go to the all-night gnawa performance and ball in les Ursulines. The cloisters had been re-done as a sort of souk -- I think this was the concept anyway. Of course, as is often the case with establishment theaters in France, the festival had failed to adequately promote the exotic performance of gnawa musicians and dancers from Morocco among Montpellier's indigenous North African-originated population, no doubt less exotic because they were so dangerous. But word had got out to a few enterprising entrepreneurs, one of whom, a tall man done up in sandals, white shorts, a tropical shirt and Panama hat, sold me a mint tea a la Montpellier from his stand in front of the cloisters, made from fresh mint with a spoonful of pine nuts ladled into it. (Le Valmy in Paris also serves its mint tea in this manner, out of silver kettles.) Inside, in addition to the musicians on a stage before which we were all invited to dance, there were two female dancers in white tunics who danced with us. I had recently read Paolo Coelho's "The Alchemist" and from the moment one of the dancers, sensuous even in a loose ankle-length white tunic, gave me her first gaze, continuing intermittently until the dance ended at five the next morning and she gave me one last piercing gaze, daring me to act, and I meekly walked away into the pre-dawn light, I was convinced that she was my Fatima. Later, writing my review, I tried to get her name from the festival's publicist so that I could give her proper credit. The white English flack dodged, claiming that, "Well, in that culture, they would never reveal the women's names." After all, she was just an Arab girl. I accordingly left the name of the festival out of my review, referring to it has having taken place "somewhere in southern France." That sure showed them. What did this experience show me, in my ongoing search for the femme de ma vie? Perhaps this: Don't spend too much time regretting the Martas of your past; you might miss the Fatima right in front of you.

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