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Paris Dispatch, 5-14: Home
We still have Paris

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2010 Paul Ben-Itzak

PARIS -- After almost three years in the country, I am back in Paris, dealing with the smog and happy to be back among my people, the outcasts -- my tribe.

It took me a while to realize just how much I am chez moi here. In "Journey to the East," Herman Hesse follows a sojourner whose expedition falls apart in disarray -- apparently. Years later, the sojourner runs into a fellow traveler and asks him whatever happened to the expedition. "It didn't fall apart," his former companion reports. "It was your vision that did."

When I first came here as a visitor, nearly 10 years ago, I saw things about myself I'd never seen before -- or so I thought -- and this became the underlying impulse for moving here in July 2001. But these mostly had to do with my over pre-occupation with the quotidien, and the things that matter least in it. (Bills, for instance.) In "Paris to the Moon," which I read shortly before I moved here, Adam Gopnik wrote that in Paris, if his ghosts didn't go away, they were at least distracted. This proved half-true for me. The beauty -- the eye candy in the form of streets and nooks and memorobilia, of the Seine and of the Ile St. Louis, of the famous and some hidden gardens of the neighborhoods, the art -- was there and was fascinating enough to provide some respite from the daily worries. But the ghosts of my psycho-history, bouncers vetting new would-be friends and lovers based on shadows from past encounters, were omni-present and swallowed many a budding friendship and even a potential lover or two. What I didn't realize until I left -- "Why does distance always make us wise?" Jonathan Larsen asks in "RENT" -- was how much I had taken people for granted, and how little slack I had granted them (because hey, why grant them more than I granted myself?).

But what's great about cities is the opportunity for renewal. And ultimately the open-ness. And the value people put on who you are, not what you are. Contrary to what one might think, snobbism and exclusion is more likely to pop up in the country than the city.

When I arrived here Saturday at the Gare Montparnesse -- shouldn't every American writer enter by this portal, not far from where Fitzgerald encountered Hemingway for the first time, in a bar on the rue Delambre (where I had encountered my first Cubans, cigars that is, in 2001)? -- I was...under-enthused. I think it was that for the first time, I was returning to Paris neither to cats or with cats, back to a home without a hearth. I was alone. I felt invisible again, unconnected to anything and anyone here. Even my friend Marcel -- I met him perusing art books at his stand on the Right Bank, across from the rear end of City Hall -- who was renting me his apartment would not actually be there (voila why it was available to rent). I'd be retrieving the keys to his appart' not far from the place (and statue) Edith Piaf from his neighbor Valerie. I was expecting Valerie to hand me the keys and show me where Marcel's place was, but the keys were not there, and Valerie handed me a beer and then gave me a tour in the light drizzle of a nook of cobbled, single house streets here in the 20th arrondisement that I'd never seen before. Me who thought he had already discovered all the secret nooks of Paris. Then we had an impromptu picnic of cheese and foie gras I'd brought from the south. The past few days a calvalcade of locals have come through Valerie's appart' (where she's extended me computer squatting rights even though Marcel's key finally arrived); just as I was writing these lines Thursday late afternoon, Pascal, a 60ish man who came in with a beer in one hand and a cigar stub protruding from his lips taught me a new phrase, "Avoir du peche," Parigot (Paris argot) for "en forme," in fine form, which Pascal demonstrated by miming giving me a whopper of a punch in the face. Valerie, a graphic designer, is making a petition for him 'pour l'ouverture des boites en plein jour,' boites referring to the bouquiniste stands like Marcel's on the Seine, which Pascal would like to see authorized in Nantes, on the Loire Atlantic. (At least a better idea than the kind of inpromptu Facebook aperos which yesterday cost the life of a young inebriated aperista in that city.) Pascal has donned a WWI infantryman's helmut as he gives Valerie instructions. On Wednesday, heading down to the place, I was hailed by Valerie, sitting in the table against the wall by the window at the back of Le Ferber next to an older man with a long face and generous mouth, apparently recovering from a laser eye operation gone bad but not visibly suffering. "He's a retired commissaire," Valerie said, nodding her head at Caesar. I repeated loudly, "Like Maigret," and he looked at Valerie and said he didn't want everyone to know. "Il fait le filu!" Valerie said, meaning the ancient commissaire knows how to make himself invisible. "So, is Maigret accurate?" I asked. He nodded slowly.

Caesar wasn't he first representative of the law that Valerie introduced me too. The other day she had a man over here, Pierre, just because he was a friend of her neighbor Michel, who's got a problem with blood not circulating in his legs which makes him reluctant to circulate outside of his apartment, and who Valerie was trying to coax out of his place and stir from his funk. "I WORK FOR THE MINISTER OF THE INTERIOR!" said the stocky Pierre exactly that loud. It was the first time I'd met a representative of the MINISTER OF THE INTERIOR up close. I was intimidated.

Valerie knows everyone in the quartier, from the manager of the super-market, to the brothers who run Le Ferber. (She's been feeding me beer and eau de vie glasses, and best of all grande and chic Lavazza coffee cups and saucers from Le Ferber. A good thing, because my famous collection of hundreds of coffee cups and beer and pastis glasses and carafes and ashtrays and other paraphenalia is somewhere in the south of France.)

In effect, I feel like I've been plopped down in the middle of a Cedric Klapisch ("Everyone has his cat," "L'auberge espagnol," "Russian Dolls") movie. And the soundtrack? Valerie has just turned me on to Manu Solo, a desperado of '90s French chanson, with music and lyrics fueled by his AIDS diagnosis and death earlier this year.

Last night, at an aperitif Valerie took me along to chez more neighbors, Djamel and Marie-Ange, the soundtrack included Johnny Cash Live at Folsom Prison (with me explaining the lyrics of "25 minutes to go,") Gainsbourg (with Djamel announcing, "Valerie is Melody Nelson!") , and "Stop Making Sense." The company, while not so large as the mortal Facebook gathering, might have matched it in electricity, with Djamel a ringmaster who, after the apero to the apero of chips and guacemole and salsa, whipped out an unending regalia of fromage (compte, unctious St. Marcelin, half a ring of aged chevre with a croustilant rind, and ridged just a day past the expiration time Brie de Meaux with a nose to wake up even the most blase nostrils), all amassed at the local corner grocery, a platter of thinly sliced charcouterie he'd scored as an end of market special at a Portuguese stand (when Djamel brought out a package of serrano ham, I pleaded with him not to open it; ditto the rilettes), spiced olives, dates on the branch, baguette and country bread (Djamel and I agreed the former is better for fromages, as the latter muffles their 'gout'), and nutella/banana sushi (don't knock it 'til you've tried it), all washed down by an award-winning 2008 Anjou (Loire Valley) from the Domaine des Hautes Ouches (ouch!), the same that Valerie had brought over Sunday when I made my infamous mystery rabbit stew for her. I stopped at the gin and orange blossom concoction Djamel proposed for the digestif before that particular Orange Blossom even embarked....Cote entertainment, Djamel began the evening by giving us a tour of his and Marie-Ange's place including his own marble creations (he was a main d'oeuvre before a band of racailles stabbed him three times in the back when he came to the rescue of another man, inadvertently saving his life by pressing him against a car as they did so, softening the impact on his heart), such as a candle-holder, a pistel, and a mottled chess board.There was also a hand-painted orca's tusk. I joined the entertainment when Djamel broke out his hat collection (mine is mostly ensconced in the south), borrowing his baseball cap to join him in an air hip-hop performance.

Having cast myself out for three years, I was now back among the happy outcasts. As we waddled home, Valerie asked if I wasn't overwhelmed by the parade of amies and amis. "Au contraire, je tu remercier," I said, encore using the forbidden word ("Stop saying thank you!" she keeps telling me), "ca c'est la vraie Paris."

For more of Paul's reflections on life, society, culture, food, and politics in France, click here. E-mail Paul by clicking here.

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