Read more chapters of 'Cross-Country'
Cross Country / A Memoir of France
10: Smoke gets in your eyes
By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2012 Paul Ben-Itzak
In Montparnasse with Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and Amelie
I've avoided seeing Woody Allen's "Midnight In Paris" mostly because, based on previous American in Paris fantasias, Woody's Parisian midnight probably doesn't have a lot to do with my daily Paris reality as I lived it from 2000 to 2010. Unlike Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and most American storyteller-adventurers, my Paris flight was solo, meaning I had to actually depend on French people if I was to have a social life and hope to have a love life. (Not for me the sordid midnight Montmartre rambles of Henry Miller.) I had to look to an earlier generation for a role model, and it wasn't promising. When it came to finding love with a French woman, I frequently felt like Lambert Strether in Henry James's "The Ambassadors," meeting a promising mate only to smack into a wall of Jericho that even my American can-do spirit couldn't break through. 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 down to the Luxembourg Garden, 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 a penny-less Hemingway had once done. (Perhaps carrying it all the way 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) there, an old crone 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 Papa was.) But, perhaps symbolizing the gulf between my 2000s reality and Hemingway's 1920s Parisian playground, the only dead pigeon I beheld at the Luxembourg was a bird which died on its own and whose carcass lay rotting for months in the murky pond of the Medici fountain.
Next I tried to recreate the intellectual ferment and fusion my ancestors must have encountered, insisting that Sabine accompany me to the theater and cinema complex Le Lucernaire on the rue Madame near the Luxembourg (and where Camus had lived during the war) to see the latest flick from Jean-Luc Godard, "Eloge de l'amour," in which the co-inventor of the Nouvelle Vague starts at the end, in black and white film, and ends in the beginning, in digital color. Used to lines around the block in New York for new Godard films, 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, knowing little French, was on the edge of the seat for the entire film, while Sabine, an actual French actress, clown, and theater teacher, couldn't stop running her hands through her hair and huffing in exasperation. Afterwards we hooked up in the bar with a couple Sabine knew who were acting in a play in the same building, and I added two important morsels to my French connaissance: Diable a le menthe, a mix of carbonated lemonade and mint syrup and a good drink to know about if you want to order something that looks cool (it comes out bright mouthwash green) but is non-alcoholic; and a word that sounded like "Waaaaaaaay" and which punctuated every other sentence of what I assumed was a hyper-intellectual conversation. "Sabine, what does 'Waaaaaaay' mean?" "It's like 'Oui' but not really polite." 'Ouais' is the French version of 'Yeah.' (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, which imposed on French distributors nine mega-blockbusters for every one art house film, thus monopolizing French screens. And added that Godard, who wasn't French anyway, was too intellectual for many French people.)
Determined to at least find the ghosts of Fitzgerald and Hemingway even if I couldn't resurrect the yeasty spirit which infused their times, I finally made my way to the rue Delambre off Montparnasse, searching for the bar-brasserie where they'd met for the first time. 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 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 and Picasso getting soused on Pernod and whiskey had long-since been supplanted by elderly matrons drinking infusions of tea. "It's my first Cuban!" I told '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 when out-flanked by cigarette-stoking Frenchmen and women at a party, having discovered that my cigar tended to trump 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 shamelessly walking around in his undies; another night a younger couple started -- the woman beckoning the man to come look -- after seeing flabby me shamelessly working at my computer in my undies. 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, I also had a more banal task to bring me back to 2001 reality: This 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 daily 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 place 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). 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 hazard 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. Another time, I went to see a musty apartment on the rue Tardieu across the street from the 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 always dormant French anti-Semitism. Upset, I found a phone booth and called Sabine, explaining to her what had happened. "Paul, ne t'inquite pas, don't worry, I will call the man and explain that if the 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 family-oriented -- but the girl did. Her sing-song voice, fermented with romantic possibility by my Truffaut-induced fantasies of a providential encounter with the love of my life, inspired me to 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 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 and with a red rose in his hand. As for Benedicte, the character from Truffaut's Antoine cycle she most resembled was 'Peggy Proper,' as Antoine referred to his first wife (Claude Jade), her dirty blonde hair in a tight bun. Benedicte was shorter than Claude Jade and more somber, her lips, under an efficient nose and librarian half-moon glasses, 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 simmering heart yearning for something unexpected. The approach she decided on for me was to treat me as her French student, instructing me in both social mores and 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 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, it's because I'm full." The waitress returned with a clump of carelessly wrapped tin-foil and dropped it disdainfully before 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 Gene Kelly courting Leslie Caron and blithely dance on, ignoring the lessons of Lambert Strether, a 21st century ambassador of Love, American Style.
Read more chapters of 'Cross-Country'