by Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2019 Paul Ben-Itzak
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This one goes out to Christine, for the apricots of Bensonhurst.
PARIS — There are moments that are so perfectly poignant there’s no time-lapse between the experience and the instant it moves you to tears. I lived several of them this afternoon, immersed in the quiet, raincloud-tempered crowd weaving through the outdoor Belleville market thinking this is why I need Paris, this is what I thrive on in Paris and why I thrive in Paris, this is what I live for in Paris, this is how I live in Paris, this is how I breathe in Paris, this is how we live and breathe in Paris, in and from its old book and cheap food markets and the mental, physical, and social sustenance they nourish us with, the solidarity with my multi-colored, multi-aged, multi-background comrades looking for the same thing, craving the same thing — not just the books and the food but also the society — then climbing up the rue Menilmontant before descending into the grounds of an ancient train track, “The Petite Ceinture” (little belt) that used to wind around Paris and is now guarded by a plaque on a grating above the tracks, these last overgrown with weeds and flanked by brush and trees, the plaque above them commemorating three resistants aged from 23 to 50 who gave their lives to liberate Paris 75 years ago, now opened to the public (but Shhhh!; the BoBos don’t seem to know about this halcyon and verdant endroit yet; let’s leave them to their 4-Euro cookie shop further up Menilmontant), where I lunched under the alternately grey, drizzly, and clearing Paris sky (a bucolic ambiance only partly perturbed by the occasional drilling nearby) on my Chinese greens and meat pancake (1.20 at Chez Alex on the rue Belleville), wedge of blue cheese and hot fresh mint thermos tea on a made to look makeshift wooden chaise comprised of wooden planks with my food-filled backpack posed on another, between acacias being pollinated by a vibrant bee colony (unlike the countryside, no pesticides or Japanese hornets to kill them here) while looking across the tracks at a panoply of multi-leveled architecture, from the single grey dilapidated shack (on whose flower-pot adorned window ledge one large black tailed by one large white cat appeared after we’d all finished our lunches licking their chops) to a mid-sized building whose staccato, different-colored square windows made it look like a Mondrian painting, to the high-rise on whose wall a multi-line dark-brown zig-zag streaked down all the way to Menilmontant.
I wish that everyone here who sees the common scarf when worn by a Muslim or Arab French woman as the greatest threat to French civilization could see what I see when I squeeze through (and often cut ahead of) the Arab-French-Muslim babushkas and distinguished older gentlemen, in turn politely making their way amongst the Chinese, African, and even the occasional BoBo mamas and papas and single people looking for the best deal on cauliflowers (1 Euro today), potatoes (a 1.30/kilo price instantly reduced to 1 Euro for more than a kilo because “look, if you buy this bag someone forgot I’ll cut you a special price,” peppery crepes (1.50, but I passed as I’d already downed a vegetarian brioche from Alex’s and still had the pancake to go), bananas (.99/kilo today, half the price of any ordinary market), beef heart tomatoes (ibid), blood oranges (same), packaged Belgian chocolate-covered waffles (1 Euro for seven today), .30 cents a generous bushel of fresh mint, a Euro for six wedges of the blue cheese, and most of all the conviviality. If it’s true that, as mayor Anne Hidalgo said at the time, by killing 130 of us, Parisians and visitors alike, on November 13, 2015, “ISIS” was out to destroy our sense of “vivre ensemble,” the Belleville outdoor market and its polyglot food shoppers gently moving forward with one common goal — feeding themselves and their families well as affordably as possible — while insisting on being more polite than one would ever imagine possible in a crowd often packed as tightly as sardines and moving in opposing directions is proof that they failed miserably. Particularly our insistence on being polite to each other. “After you, Monsieur-Dame,” said I to a middle-aged French Arab man escorting his gown and scarf wearing wife. “No, after you Monsieur.”
And these two instances of unspoken trust that occurred within half an hour of each other: The young man who’s been my cheap cheese guy for four years simply smiling to communicate that I hadn’t yet handed him the two-Euro coin in my hand to pay for the cheese (I’d have one Euro change coming), and the (again, gown and scarf wearing) woman at the bakery where I usually buy my Diplomate bread pudding but today settled for a .70 cent round of semolina bread (to test the denture) after calculating that it would leave me with exactly 4.30, the price of a raw chicken at the butcher’s on Menilmontant, realizing before I even had time to verify that instead of two two Euro coins and three dimes she’d given me a two and a one coin and fixing it. (Maybe this is normal where you live too; what’s not normal is the sinister implications with which many here invest the way these woman choose to dress. This is why I persist in describing the normality of the day to day interactions I have with them. This is why I sometimes wonder if those who panic at the sight of a scarf on a Muslim / Arab woman buy their ((French)) bread in the same bakeries I do.)
My other little instances of this expectation of consideration — and the profound belief in the power of “vivre ensemble” — came from the elderly babushka on a crutch, she also clothed from head to toe (but not the face) who gently tapped my shoulder to inform me, “Your backpack is hurting me.” “Desolée, Madame.” And then there was the moment of complicity with the tall brown-skinned young man who, as I was about to turn away from the apricot seller who insisted that if the price was 1 Euro for a kilo, this meant you had to buy a kilo after I’d tried to buy half of that, touched my elbow and suggested, “Hey, I only want a half kilo too. How about if I buy a kilo and then you pay me .50 cents and we split it?” This he did, first diplomatically walking us away from the seller so he couldn’t see how two men of two ages from two different cultures had outfoxed him. “Here, why don’t I take the plastic sack and you pour some from the paper bag?” After he’d emptied a generous amount into it and paused, I patiently maintained the plastic bag to let him pour a handful more and then stopped him. “That’s fine,” adding, “The thing is I don’t like to buy more because they’re not always good.” “It’s the same for me!,” he said, smiling as we went our separate ways, the proof that we were both right in our skeptical apricot moderation coming minutes later when I took my portion out on my chaise at the Petite Centure to discover that they were already smushed. (Putting the cauliflower on top of them probably didn’t help.)
But my apricots, my part of the spoils, were still succulent, perfect for compote — like the succulent compote that is Belleville, all of us crushed together and sweeter for the crushing, Belleville mon amour, Belleville forever.