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I dedicate my entries for the month of May to France, the country, not the person. I don't know anyone named France, not even Francis or Francesca. I have come to suspect the simple fact that the name a people have for themselves is always deceptively short: Eng, Frank, Sax, Greek; one or two syllables at most. I'm referring to the ancient name of the people, not the made up name used for an artificial country. The names were short because they probably just meant "people" in their own tongue, short for its obviousness, for its intimacy and battle cry.
Franks are Gauls. A child's drawing of a white church is spread over a carved table. The lines of the drawing are light blue. The sky is dark because it is night time, perhaps even Noel. A bell is tilted in the arrow that towers over the small village surrounded by agricultural land. We sing in French: Frere Jacques eu, frere jacques eu. We are tiny. Pere Toulemonde towers over us. His dark mantle as well as his eyes are blue. His face is chemically burned by the Nazis. Blue is blue eu. We make awkward ovals with our lips.
One of fathers at the school has a crooked pinky. It has a texture like the trunk of an old vine. He uses it to finger us when we are bad, which is often. He recommends that we pee after making love. We giggle, not knowing what he means at all. It is much later that we discover words like syphilis, or bipolar. By then the damage is done. But we also learn. These minds, as ravaged as they are by remorse and disease, are also quite sharp. They originated in the luminous landscapes of Provence before their abrupt turn.
I will grossly simplify the French psyche into a tricorne hat. The left back corner is dipped in blue. For the masses I say, the ones who had enough of hunger, their taxes and their assignments at school. The right corner is stained red for the church with its red garments and red hats and all the red blood it spilled over the years, and the racism it promotes against the waves of Islam. The jutting point of the hat, the one stuck between the two is the white of flesh. It is royal debauch at the service of Art.
Who knows when exactly my father was studying at L'Ecole des Beaux-Arts? Some say it was in the thirties, some say forties (but that's not really possible) or even fifties. He was looking for a room. A cheap one around Montmartre. In one of those ubiquitous five story buildings. The landlady said this is for you. The place was shabby and expensive. Gesturing to the room in front, she said wait until la Demoiselle comes back. Every day at breakfast, she would say she'll be here soon. A violinist, no less, my father told us with a faint smile.
While my father was up and about the cafes and the bars, I roamed the streets, an urchin, a stealthy scrawny five year old wearing something that must have been blue and striped. The prostitutes would smile, and the old lady scold. Everyone smoked and drank and did not work. The attitude and the clothes was the end all. I imagine that this crowd, this scene, or more precisely this unrest, was repeated all over the world in different places and at different times. But there and then there was a sharpness, a purpose, an aesthetic revolution in full bloom.
Through a child's mind everything is exciting. Now I know that instead of its apogee, the cultural and artistic golden age was at its end. It only follows money after all. What I saw was its last breath, before moving North to the tune of English Rock, and West to the pizzaz of American media. The France of poetry, of Monet, Big Novels, of the Avant-Garde only lives in history books. The energy now belongs to the immigrants, even as they are reviled, or put in their places as the locals say, their racism their defense against their regret.
I stumbled on a little place. A boy from Bretagne with a handsome narrow face and long straight hair had mentioned it in passing at school. It was a bold move to show up there, with the usual bullies around. What saved me was a pretty little girl that came to take my hand and sit me at a communal table. How wonderful beer tasted for the first time! I still remember its euphoria, and the wonderful jazz! Contrary to what Americans believe, the French are great connoisseurs of everything American. Even Philip K. Dick first became famous in France.
I read John Berger as I walked the countryside. In one of his books, I have forgotten which, he had a simple drawing of various shapes of meat obtained from butchering a cow. The caption read "The idea of bounty". The French country side is bountiful to the extreme: the best grapes (wine), the best cheese, bread, meat from game, mushrooms, fruits from the sunny valleys of the south. Imagine the level of taxation that would bring its farmers to the verge of famine. Imagine how the central elite siphons this wealth to its galas, fashion shows and film festivals.
Also imagine how this little and former colonial contender still manages to be a formidable arms merchant. In select corners of Africa and the Middle East its guns and silkworm missiles have a following all their own. In the Paris suburbs, a mini city, "La Defense", has risen where modern and purpose-built high-rises house the best engineers and MBAs. On the streets below, young African boys sell toy guns carved in whatever you can image: soap, tires, tin. Sometimes they follow their clients home. Sometimes they become their couriers. I am sickened by the promotion of profitable wars.
Beaudelaire, dressed like a British Dandy, coming out of the Salon of 1846 wrote: "It is time to be drunk! So as not to be the martyred slaves of time, be drunk, be continually drunk! On wine, on poetry or on virtue if you wish." And there you have it. On the bullet train from Marseilles to Paris, in the seats in front of me, I see a very young girl, perhaps 13, travelling with an older man. He is looking at her with the look lovers have, with Beaudelaire's eyes, art permeating virtue, his glass of wine in hand.
Paul drags me out to downtown. It is a cold night but we can't feel anything. We want to go to "Les Bains Douches", literally "The Bath Showers", a public bath house turned into a night club. The décor's by Stark. We stand in the short line for a few hours watching Rolls-Royces empty their contents into the bar. Paul asks the doorman how he can tell. He points to Paul's watch. He can tell by the watch, he says. What if it's a fake? He can tell. There is a niche for everything in an old country.
Julie and I have missed the last metro. "We can go to my aunt's place" I say. "It's just around the corner." Julie is incredulous: "In the 9th arrondissement (subdivison)?" I say wait until you see it. My two aunts are nuns. They are short and stocky. They inherited the luxurious condo from an elderly gentleman they cared for. The apartment has furniture piled up to the ceiling. There is only a narrow passageway in each room. "This is like a horror movie" Julie whispers to me as one of nuns is holding her in her arm and petting her.
There is no running water. We don't ask why. "You could take a shower at the monastery." I am game. Julie stomps my foot. My aunt leads us to a back door. "Be very quiet" she says, ushering us through an impossibly small wooden door. The vast space is empty and very dusty. The showers are built for fifty people at a time. She leaves us there. "What?" Julie says. I have a smirk on my face. "No fucking way!" she says as she wiggles away. The light comes in from the ceiling tiles. I think of the deep sea.
The spirit of Bretagne is very different from the rest of France. The corners have inherited the traits of their neighbours. In Alsace you drink beer and if you were rich enough you could drive a Bugatti, the factory is right there. In the Riviera you drink red wine by the Mediterranean. In the north you dress up like in England, but I prefer the soul of Bretagne, a celtic mysticism that speaks of wells, enchanted or not, white walls against the sea and darkly dressed witches that gather to dance nude under the moonlight. Their skin is very white.
There is a certain type of girl, more often than not from Bretagne, that I have always admired. They are reputed to have a wild and earthy nature, ala Welch. There used to be a monthly comix magazine that I used to buy that exemplifies this type. It was called "A Suivre" which means "To be followed". How I wish I had kept them! It was in black and white and fairly avant-garde, with works by the likes of Tardi and Hugo Pratt and Munoz. In each issue you followed a dozen stories, all incomplete, true works of art!
From the juvenile comics the young French adult graduates to full blown pornographic ones by the masters of the art, graphic artists with names like Crepax, Altuna and Manara. With thousands of years of illustration techniques, they capture with a few simple lines the essence of desire. Americans often marvel at the sexual openness of the French. I attribute to a large extend these artists for this, the same way Manga and Hentai in Japan influences the Japanese public attitude towards sex. We started early, encouraged, you might say, by what we read, blurring the difference between fantasy and reality.
Influential, masterful, beautiful. Really good art creates a world of fantasy which is so far above the daily life in France that almost everyone plots an escape. Adequate becomes inadequate. Middle-aged men trade (or will stop at nothing for the chance of trading) their middle-aged wives for models just out of puberty. The divorce rate seems a decent 40%, but in circles I know, it is closer to 90%. You meet many men who are at their fifth wife. It's much difficult for the women, although they too fling themselves at younger men or very often other women.
You would think that in a country that believes most of all in Freedom (as immortalized by Delacroix), in a country that wine flows, that the girls are beautiful and subjected to an abundance of pornography, in a country with mild weather and good food, and art everywhere and in good taste, you'd think that people would be happy. But as most visitors attest this is far from the truth. The French psyche is stressed, tortuous, anti-establishment to its core, all layers of society at war with each other. Throw in the mix unemployed immigrants and let it simmer.
I feel too lazy today. I'll simply quote Charles DeGaulle, the king himself, on the French: "You must trust their strengths and protect them from their weaknesses. They have not changed since Julius Caesar described them. Their strengths are bravery, generosity, unselfishness, impetuosity, curiosity, creativity, the gift they have to adjust to extreme situations. Their weaknesses are a clanic spirit, mutual intolerance, brusque anger, internecine quarrels, and the jealousy they feel for the advantages that the others have." I can't add much to that. These are generalities, to be sure, but there is often a deep truth in old tales.
A gang of skinheads with their bloated and short jackets are harassing a young Moroccan man. Soon one of them is punching him. A crowd gathers. I want to help so I dial 17. There's no way I want to get in the middle of that. The faces are absurd. Rage contorts them into demonic masks. Soon, but not soon enough, sirens are heard and people shuffle away, me included. As I turn the corner I glance back to see the Moroccan man handcuffed. The cops are shouting at him. His face is bloody. Pure hatred dances in his eyes.
A city is a big place, let alone a country. The collective past has only a material impact. Underneath the high fashion, the exquisite facade, up the vintage elevator and inside the carved door, all of us sit in the same room. We listen to the same honk outside, breath in the same smog and watch the show, albeit dubbed. We all want the same girl. Want her to set our world afire. Sure, the accent is exotic, and her nipples are high. We are rich and she is beautiful, but these are just words. And Reality always trumps words.
What I liked about Pierre was the positive way he described people. "Ah, they just moved in from Amsterdam. They are so cool!" He lived in the basement and the people were the Paul And Mares. I met them soon enough. Mares took my breath away. Even now, I am troubled by the memory of that encounter, and everything else that followed. Was I in love? I was too young for her. That's the one certain fact. Paul was definitely cool, the definition of the word. He played Bach's solo works for violin and studied law. I should have known.
I have an expensive bottle of champagne in my hand and a joint in my pocket. Mares is waiting for me upstairs. Paul would not be back tonight. We finish the bottle, and she says let's smoke too. In the back of my mind I was hoping this, but now I'm not sure. She has it backwards in her mouth and blowing it to mine. I panic. I know. This is an important moment. The fork is clear. I just couldn't do it. I say I have to go and I see in slow motion hatred forming on her face.
As I went down I saw the word "coward" flash in my mind. I should have been a man and satisfied her. I led her on, or at least I was a willing pupil. What it was more than anything was something like a flashlight on my actions. I couldn't watch it, if I detached myself from my desire. I saw Mares at the corner coffee shop and the hatred flared again in her eyes. You have to realize how beautiful, how confident and full of life she was. If only I didn't know Paul. If I could be back.
One cannot talk of France without mentioning its cinema. My first encounter with it, and I was very young, was Cocteau's La Belle et la Bete. Not too long ago I watched it again and it still had the same magical impact. The thing to realize is that movie making is very old in France. It followed the footsteps of novels, plays, and in the case of Cocteau, poetry. They are rarely escapist. They seek realism, and most often they follow the blueprints of Greek tragedy that denies everlasting happiness. The best relationship after all is the memory of one.
The new wave of cinema was the voice of the rebellion of the French youth in the sixties, not unlike the anti war rock and roll of the States. After watching Goddard's Weekend with my friend Ivan and opening the gates of the theater to the city at night, we had a new found sense of freedom. We didn't have to get into one of those Grands Ecoles for the future elites of the country. We didn't believe in a country, in a God, or even society. We drifted in a world apart, filled with girls, drugs and absolute abandon.
We entered and exited political movements. We gathered up in apartments filled with plants and listened to the music of John Cage and Ultravox. We talked all the time, finishing up bottles of wine. We wrote songs and science fiction stories. Everything was deep. Exotic. Ivan was the magician, and I his apprentice. He was a magnet for girls the likes of which I have never seen. His physique was perfect. We would be drinking at a bar and a girl, not a bad one at that, would walk right up to him to tell him he was a God.
I went back to Paris a few years ago. Of course a lot has changed, but surprisingly also so little. The trees have gotten much bigger, and the population is multicolored. We visited a friend of mine with his charming Corsican wife, and looked down from their balcony to the arch of the street below. Small cars were piled up everywhere. Young workers screamed at each other and the cars honked just as loudly as I remembered. It was so strange to see the survivors: a cafe here, a flower shop there. Not the ones I would have bet on.
The wide boulevards are jammed with cars now. We're tiny. We walk under the sunshine. The population, like an inevitable outcome, is on the march. They have a momentum and a magnetism to attract from the far tribes of Africa and the Middle East. Among the older ones, the new ethnicities wage wars, intermarry and settle down. They prune the grape vines and the landscape absorbs their spirit. Time adds its layers of language, of history, of injustice and new stories are born to weld the population together at last. We are optimistic. We sit at a table and stare.
Michael, come and see for yourself. It's far from Desolation Road, but not that unreachable anymore. The space of a day, and you'd stare too, wide-eyed, at the intersection of your imagination and reality. Some stories you've already heard. For those you could be a time traveller. Some are not written yet. They require your anticipation and most of all your presence. France, this hexagonal piece of land, this bridge really, from here to there, is nothing without stories. Like a candystore owner I point to this color and that, and exult or warn you. But until you taste..
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