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Cross Country / A Memoir of France
20: An American Protester in Paris
By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2012 Paul Ben-Itzak
"I often go to Paris to live yesterday tomorrow."
-- Malcolm McLaren, "Paris."
C'est pas chez toi
"Alors, tu fait l'opposition de l'exterior, c'est bien ca?" I had just told the petite, dirty blonde lawyer with the impertinent blue eyes and girlish voice in the floppy gray trench-coat that I was not even tempted to go back to the U.S. as long as Bush was president. We were at the chipped mosaic "zinc," or counter, of le Valmy, my 'café d'habitude' on the Quai Valmy of the Canal Saint-Martin (I was stationed on the corner stool, from which I could look out at the canal through the Sun-streaked cracked window), a mythic Parisian water-way which runs all the way to the Bastille (moving underground a panhandle at the Boulevard Richard Lenoir, where Simenon's Commissar Maigret lived with his doting wife), immortalized in films like Jean Vigo's 1934 "L'Atalante," in which Michel Simon's crusty sea captain takes his first mate and his bride on a honeymoon tour of France's water-ways (I'd copped an imprecation uttered by Simon to one of the cats who make up his menage when she jumps on his dinner table to use with my own feline roommates: "Allez Mignon, c'est pas chez toi!"; it sounded more lyrical than "Mesha Mesha if you're able, get yourself off the table, this is not a kitty's stable!"); Marcel Carné's 1947 fairy-tale "Les portes de la nuit," in which Yves Montand made his debut (introducing "The Dead Leaves," neutered in the American version as "Autumn Leaves") as a man who misses the last Metro to live a dreamish night in Barbes (in now mostly Arabic lower Montmartre; the lanky, swarthy, Italian-born young Montand would fit right in) which ends with his lover's body being fished out of the canal; and "Hotel du Nord," also by Carné, in which the legendary music hall chanteuse Arletty indignantly tells a paramour in her high-pitched voice, "Atmosphere!? Atmosphere!? Is that all I am to you?!" It's a canal intersected by locks, and when I lived in Paris, pedestrians still made time to stop if they happened to find themselves on one of its bridges (from which "Amelie" liberated her goldfish) when a ferry was about to pass under.
The first time I saw the canal I thought, "the Seine sure gets narrow here"; the second was in "Hotel du Nord" (the real hotel is still there, but it's surly staff excluded it from the running for my café d'hab), which decided me that this was the old Paris neighborhood for me, a place where I could live the Paris of yesterday today. When I returned to Paris to live in the fall of 2001, the canal was being drained; no dead bodies, but a lot of garbage. (My initial choice had been a café on the other side, L'Isle Enchanté, whose proximity to the unemployment office made it a popular day-time hang-out among actors, but after the towering dreadlocked barman got mad because I thought that he was saying "yes, that seat's free" when in fact he mean "that seat's taken," I never returned to the Isle.) While the flat on the rue de Paradis was on the periphery of the 10eme arrondissement which included the canal, it was still a vigorous morning walk past the Gare de l'Est to le Valmy to take my morning noisette, the poor man's cafe créme, a petite café topped off with a dollop of steaming milk foam. (To the usual routine menu of coffee -- the French are nothing if not creatures of habit -- le Valmy added a signature mint tea, made from fresh mint leaves shaken up and served in a shiny silver tea-pot with a glass for the tea and a second one of pine nuts to drop into it. I'd first acquired a taste for mint tea served this way my second summer covering the dance festival in Montpellier, where a tall French-Arab vendor in a wide-brimmed straw hat and Hawaiian shirt hawked it outside an all-night gnawa party in a medieval cloister, a dance party under silk canopies where I'd brushed against the elusive femme de ma vie, a dancer I'd named Fatima, after the anima in Paulo Coelho's "The Alchemist." The mint tea had become my madeleine, it's murky waters conjuring Fatima's piercing stare daring me to touch her, the pine-nuts providing the poisonous chew of regret.)
I'd earlier tried a bar called "l'Atmosphere," across the canal from the Hotel du Nord, but ruled it out when I realized it was primarily a gay hang-out; little prospect to find the femme de ma vie there. I was drawn to le Valmy by the sign advertising a weekly poetry slam, which promised an air of San Francisco in Paris, and the exotic music mix. "Who's the DJ?" I'd asked the thin curly haired French-Algerian 30-something man with the amused grin behind the counter on my first visit. "C'est moi!" Ta'ar owned le Valmy with his prematurely balding brother Maclouf (Max), whose expression also suggested that no matter how grave it seemed, you shouldn't take it seriously. Unlike Cafe Prune further down the canal towards the Bastille, le Valmy, with paintings or photographs by local artists decorating its dark mustard plaster walls, always well illumined from the tall windows on both sides of its corner location, was hip without being trendy and, the tone set by Ta'ar and Max, the staff cool without being aloof. The waitresses were chic yet approachable, French hippy children, and the morning barman, Djamel, a handsome, dark-skinned 40-year-old whose tightly clipped hair and joie de vie made him seem closer to 30, was engaging, funny, and earnestly solicitous, all of which meant there were always lots of vivacious women hovering over the zinc. (Paris tip #145: When looking to meet women, you actually want a bar hosted by a charming man.) We'd developed an easy repartée, but our mutual comprehension was often challenged by the noisy espresso machine and music, not to mention the other conversations, given my still shaky French. (I'd usually go over potential sentences and jokes on my way to the bar each morning.) Nevertheless Djamel and I hit it off; we shared a love for running and reggae, and it wasn't long before I was calling him Djamel Marley.
Perhaps it was that Ta'ar, Max, and Djamel were French Arabs that made le Valmy the perfect place to flaunt my opposition to the daily butchering of innocent Iraqis by my country. Every morning I would open up Libé, as Parisians refer to the daily Liberation (founded by Sartre and others after the May 1968 revolts) to the graphic coverage of the atrocities we were perpetrating and visibly shake my head in disgust and dismay while looking at the pictures of dead Arabs. (As American media, from the New York Times to National Public Radio, had lead us into this fictional war by their unquestioning, supine acceptance of the Bush-Cheney propaganda, I also felt it was my duty to report back to the readers of my magazine, The Dance Insider, on the quite different reality being reported unblemished by French media.) At the first demonstration in February 2003, shortly before Bush-Cheney abetted by the Times launched the invasion, I'd actually scolded a Communist on the boulevard Montparnasse who'd unfurled a banner equating the American flag with the Nazi swastika, "You wouldn't be here if not for my country!!" But as soon as we invaded, at the first large demonstration, as we gathered at the Place Concord across the street from the American Embassy, I'd immediately latched on to a group called Americans Against the War. It seemed vital to show that not all Americans were war-mongers out to shed innocent Arab blood. Eventually I made the cover of Humanité, the Communist daily, helping to hoist a banner calling for George Bush to be tried for war crimes; or the back of my fresh-shaven head did anyway, as I was turned to lead the chant.
Even though I grew up in San Francisco, where I was weaned at the marches against the Vietnam War -- when I was five years old I remember my mom pointing at a man in a plaid shirt and saying he was probably an undercover FBI agent -- I was never an automatic joiner, in fact living among the professional protesters gave me an aversion to it. I only demonstrated when it seemed it would make a difference; thus in Alaska in 1991, it was just me and two colleagues from the Anchorage Daily News (one a Native Alaskan) who marched in front of the federal building, holding up signs with frostbitten fingers. And so in Paris in 2003, I paraded with my fellow anti-war Americans towards the front of the march, where organizers usually placed us and where we were applauded by standersby, although once we were elbowed out of the way by militant organizers from the CFTD; the labor unions often seemed more interested in advertising themselves than in advancing the actual causes.
For an American in Paris, participating in these marches held the extra lure of immersion in the rich Parisian lore of citizen insurgencies, inserting me into an earlier Paris history, as they often shadowed the storied Left Bank routes of the 'soixante-huitards,' the student and worker protestors of May 1968. It was also a way of re-living the San Francisco history which I had only experienced as a child and re-kindling that memory and spirit with the depth of adult consciousness. In many ways Paris for me was that: San Francisco in the '60s, a way to live yesterday today with grown-up sensations.
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