Tag: French



The first two weeks of June in Paris were so cold and rainy that I had to go to the flea market at the Place d’Aligre in the 12th Arrondissement to replace the short-sleeved high-desert shirts I had brought with me from Mexico. I paid two Euros for a heavy cream-colored wool sweater that zipped down to my solar plexus and made me look like a small-boat captain at the evacuation of Dunkirk exactly seventy years earlier. I bought a faded green Levi jacket stiff with mildew, which – from too much Marais district Orthodox strudel – barely buttoned over my English sweater. Thus equipped, I went to the Seine to paint. I wanted to see which part of the mystique of Paris I could be part of, to see what lay below the surface of things French.
I had been to the top floor of the Orsay and seen the exhibit of P. H. Emerson, who drew with ink pen over original Heliographic negatives in the 1890s. The ink additions were hard to distinguish from the ghostly landscape backgrounds, especially in my favorite: “Marsh Leaves, Feuilles des marais,” London, 1895. I found it mildly disturbing, this process of super-imposing new representations on older ones, with a different medium.
There is more information you need to know. My great great-grandfather was born in Rouen, in the Haute Normandie. One recent Sunday morning, I had begun chatting with a woman sitting next to me at the Turenne Café, near the Place Des Voges. She was taking her café au lait with a group of neighborhood friends. The conversation turned to where I was from. I said I was from Mexico. But where are you from? they asked. Well, before that, California. But before that? I realized this was a question of origins. Perhaps my flea market sweater was showing and that was a clue. And so I told them about my great great-grandfather being born in Rouen.
“Then you are French,” they exclaimed, in unison. And then in fun: “Champaign all around!” And when I left, one of them pointed to the west and enjoined: “Be French!”
At a certain bench, beside the Seine, on the Ile Saint-Louise, I moistened my squares of color and considered what I saw before me. A dredger, its filling barge and a tug sat under the Pont Louis Philippe, the bridge that crosses to Ile de Cité at the Notre Dame. The dredge itself was what we used to call a steam shovel. This one was diesel, orange, and sat on rubber wheels, on top of it own barge. Six hydraulic arms bent down to the top of the barge to give the machine stability. From the barge, two massive black stilts extended down into the river bottom, to hold the whole floating assemblage in place: the dredge barge, the filling barge, and the tug – the vessel closest to me.
Before I go on, I should mention that I took my friends at the Turenne Café seriously and decided to know more about being French. I went to Rouen in search of Edouard Dupré and stayed a week. I made many phone calls. I knocked on doors. I walked through graveyards and looked at church records. I spent many hours at the Internet site Cercle Généalogique Rouen Seine Maritime.
George Edward Dupré was born in Rouen, France in 1798. He emigrated to Kentucky and owned fifty slaves. He chartered schooners and traded his goods in the Caribbean for tree crotches of sandalwood and mahogany for ship’s knees. On his third voyage, in 1838, his ship, ravaged by a great storm, broke its back against a reef on the coast of Florida. While most of the crew drowned, he and his idiot cabin boy clung to wreckage and drifted ashore, where they were killed by Seminole Indians. He was survived by my great-grandmother Sarah.
He had a brother Clément who stayed in France and produced generations of Cléments, the last of which fought the Germans in Normandy with the Communist branch of the French Resistance: The Front National. French Gestapo agents, a group called the Bonny-LaFont, arrested his love Marie Lambourne and said they would execute her if Clément did not give himself up. An exchange was arranged. Marie went free. Clément was tortured in the basement of 93 Rue Lauriston in the 16th Arrondissement, along with countless others. He gave up no information. Depressed, broken, and alone – with the image of Marie the last thing he saw behind his closed lids – he was guillotined one winter dawn in the building’s courtyard.
I found Marie in Rue Francs Bourgeois, in the Marais, near the Picasso Museum. She was 87 years old, five years older than me. She has a daughter and a granddaughter. Both of them are called Clémentia. I showed her all of my notes. She taught French to foreigners at the Sorbonne for many years. She spoke slowly and clearly, so I could understand. She was gracious and warm. The second bottle of wine – a Mosel – was covered in dust. She said we would not wash it because we were dealing with all aspects of the past. She brought out sheep’s cheese and three-quarters of a prodigious baguette she had purchased in that morning. She said we were cousins of some sort, and she would tell me anything I wanted to know.
I asked her about Clément. He was brave. And very funny, she said. He could blow up trains. He could also make up riddles, if we woke up anxious and afraid, early in the morning. We had a brass bed. She looked me straight in the eye, as she continued.
“There were four things then. Him, me, the brass bed, and the wonderful love we made in it.” I felt I should look away when she said this. But I didn’t.
She paused. Night had fallen. It was cool in the room. She got up slowly and turned on the electric wall heater. Then she sat down at the table again. She poured the last of the dusty wine into our glasses.
“This is the best wine I have ever tasted,” she said. “And I know it is because you have come to hear my story.” I took a sip and put the glass down.
“You probably want to know what happened to the bed,” she said. I said I hadn’t really thought about it. What I had thought about was a young woman with her eyes, together with a young Frenchman who might have looked a little like me, naked and clasped in love.
“When he died, I could not bear to lie in it alone,” she said. “I gave away the springs, and even the mattress. Then I enlisted a friend to carry the brass head frame to the river. I went with him. The Bonny-Lafont never gave me his body. The agent I dealt with said I should look for it in the Seine. I didn’t know whether to believe him or not. Sometimes the bodies of resistance fighters turned up in the river. So did the bodies of German soldiers.”
She stopped. She took her glass and poured the last inch of her wine into my glass. She smiled, with a face full of a joy I didn’t understand. “I can’t drink anymore,” she said. There were tears in her eyes. She got up. She said she was very tired. She kissed me on both cheeks. She said we were family. She said I was indeed French and that I should take that very seriously. She said she would call me soon.
Two days later, a letter arrived. “I know you are wondering – if you are who I think you are – what we did with the bed. We walked out onto the Pont d’Acole, I think it was, and threw it into the river. Very, very early in the morning when it was still dark. I cannot explain exactly why but it made great sense to me then. Remember we are family. Come visit me soon.”
I know I have kept you sitting, for too long, on the stone bench beside the Seine, waiting to see what I would paint. Also, let me defend myself by telling you that I do not believe in straight connections. It was cold. But I had my Dunkirk sweater and my Levi jacket. The dredge worked under the Pont Louis Philippe. Its steel bucket had four large teeth for rooting and tearing on the river bottom. Over and over, it swiveled and dumped the captured silt into the filling barge along side, swiveled back, dipped in again, like a great mechanical swan feeding on the bottom, and this time – jammed in its teeth – brought up the metal head frame of a bed. The machine swiveled. It shook the bucket over the filling barge like an angry animal, and the bed fell down out of sight into the collected silt.
I know what you are thinking. And I agree with you. It was not the right bridge. The river bottom had been dredged for seventy years. Most of us are not big on miracles. Jung would have called it synchronicity – two events connected by an overly attentive mind, but not connected in actual fact.
At the same time, the main barge – the dredger – raised its two black stilts, and everything drifted twenty feet closer, with the current.
I held my brush in midair. The matter of P.H. Emerson’s heliograph negatives was coming up. The barge drifted toward me, intruding into the foreground I had constructed on my painting. It brought the mud-blackened bed frame closer. And I began to wonder who or what was becoming the dark ink accent on a ghostly Emersonian background.
I could not believe it was Marie and Clément’s bed. But I did have to believe it had been someone’s bed. The same kind of question drifted closer: Who had thrown it from the bridge, and why? What blurred negative lay behind?
When I got back to my apartment – the size of a matchbox – I found another letter from Marie, the handwriting shakier.
“I believe it was the Pont d’Arcole. Very, very early in the morning – when it was still dark. I thought the bed would find him and give him comfort.”
Below these few lines there was a different handwriting.
I am a friend of Marie’s. I do not know what these words mean, but she had already addressed the envelope, and they lay next to each other on her desk. I am assuming they are connected. Marie died peacefully in her chair with a book of war-time photographs on her lap. I am including my phone number, if you would like to know more. Sincerely…
And then there was a name and the date, from two days earlier. I called the phone number, and Clémentia, Marie’s daughter answered. When I told her who I was, she said she already knew and she would like it very much if I would come to her mother’s memorial service; that she knew quiet clearly it would have been her mother’s wish.
At the service, I was warmly received in both word and gesture. Two weeks later, I sent the daughter a narrative similar to the one I’ve just told you, describing everything – except for P.H. Emerson. Two days later, she phoned and asked if I would do her a favor. She said she wanted to see the spot where the dredge had brought up the bed. I reminded her that her mother thought the spot was below the Pont d’Arcole. She said she had already made a decision. And so we met at three in the morning at the north end of the Pont Louis Philippe, where the dredge had been positioned. With the Notre Dame as ghostly background, Clémentia poured her mother’s ashes into the Seine. She held the empty urn – an old tea tin – in her right hand, slack at her side. The other hand, the one nearest me, held the tin’s lid. On an impulse, I put my arm around her waist. She put her lid hand around my waist, and I held her close against me as she sobbed.

L’achèvement de Moi et Mon Chien

(My first attempt at translating one of my short pieces into French, as a language learning exercise, with much help from my tutor, whose name I will not mention—to protect him from scandal if the translation is just too horrible, to the extent that it would make French cows fall over dead.)


Quand mon chien est mort—combien d’histoires commencent comme ça?—j’ai renouncé à essayer de trouver des nouvelles façons de vendre mon roman. Je pleurais par vagues, tandis que je creusais le trou, un endroit où un oranger avait vécu pour autant d’années que mes fils. J’enveloppai le vieux dans ma veste Harris préférée et je le glissai dans sa tombe.

J’ai pensé que j’aurais appris quelque chose de lui sur la mort, mais c’est plus difficile en n’étant pas le chien qui meurt. Je caressais sa tête et je lui disais, combien il me manquerait. Je tenais sa tête au moment où le vétérinaire s’est approché par derrière, en le touchant sur son épaule vers le haut, cherchant la place pour l’aiguille. Les yeux de mon ami étaient chaleureux et pleins de confiance, même lorsque l’aiguille entrait, et pendant encore quelques secondes après.

Son regard se reposa sur moi, même s’il m’avait déjà quitté.

L’homme qui est assis en face de moi, mon partenaire d’écriture, est en train de bricoler avec les sons que son téléphon peut faire, quand des appels et messages arrivent. Mon défunt ami ne m’appelle pas. Ni ma mère ou mon père le font. C’est l’âge et pas l’aiguille qui les a interrompus. Mais je peux voir l’avantage de la chose pointue. Ton amour te caresse le front avec une main qui n’est plus jeune, mais encore chaude et lisse, comme quand elle avait 34 ans.

“Es-tu prêt?” demande-t-elle.

“Non,” dis’je, avec un gémissement gâté et irrité, à la pensée d’être éteint pour toujours.

Ses yeux sont humides. J’ai accéleré ma respiration, j’ai durçi mon ventre pour l’effort qui venait.

“Es-tu sûr que c’est ce que tu veux?” dit-elle.

“Non,” lui dis-je avec, le meme ton désagréable. “C’est une decision impossible.”

Je sanglotai une fois, ensuite j’essayai de sourire. Je l’aime et la vie aussi. Je suis trop intelligent pour ne pas savoir ce qui va se passer.

“Alors, restes, si tu veux,” dit-elle.

“Combien de temps?” je demande.

“Tant que tu veux.”

Son sourire est chaleureux, ses yeux bruns, aussi profonds que ceux de mon chien.

“Quelques jours, une semaine tout au plus. L’aiguille marquera le moment,” dis-je.

Elle me regarde.

“Les deux aiguilles marqueront,” dis-je.

Nous avons toujours eu nos blagues. Un ami médecin a apporté l’aiguille et la potion fatale. Il s’approchera par derrière, en me touchant sur mon épaule supérieure. Je n’ai qu’à donner le signal.

Nous avons déjà deux fois atteint ce point. J’ai chaque fois choisi le sursis, incapable de tout quitter, d’entrer dans l’oblitération.

Mon vieil ami remuait la queue et il m’a fait confiance, sachant peut-être ce qui se passait, peut-être pas. Il ne pouvait pas me dire comment faire. Si l’acceptation est une sorte d’intelligence, je ne l’ai pas. Je pense que c’est Karl Gustav Jung qui a dit que l’inconscient ne peut pas imaginer sa propre extinction. Il a peut-être eu raison pour mon chien. Peut-être que c’est une bonne raison pour attendre jusqu’à ce que l’inconscient—la mer dont nous venons—se soit glissé plus près. Ou que nous soyons descendus vers lui.

Comme je l’écrivais: Peut-être que c’est une bonne raison pour attendre, mon amour aux yeux bruns, elle que j’ai déjà mencionnée, apparut sur les marches du deuxième étage de ce café deglingué où nous écrivons—chose qu’elle n’a jamais faite dans les dix années dans lesquelles j’ai rèncontré mon partenaire d’écriture, à qui je vais lire prochainement ce freewrite, selon notre coutume.

Je suis quelqu’un qui croit—plus ou moins—en la synchronicité, la théorie que les choses se passent en coordination les unes avec les autres, c’est à dire, pas tout à fait par hasard.

“J’ai besoin d’argent,” dit-elle.

Je sortis mon porte-monnaie.

“Je n’ai pas beaucoup,” dis-je, en observant qu’il se pouvait en fait qu’aucun de nous n’ait assez.

“J’ai juste besoin d’assez d’argent pour Donna,” dit-elle.

Donna es notre personal trainer. Nous disons chaque fois ces mots-là avec ironie, conscients de leur sonorité prétentieuse. Au lieu de rétrécir et nous ratatiner, mon amour et moi nous avons décidé de nous remuscler et pratiquer l’équilibre.

“Et pour le gymnase,” dit-elle. “Trente pesos.”

Je lui passai mon argent. Mon partenaire d’écriture tend la main, il veut sa part. L’ambiance a changé. L’océan s’est éloigné. Il ne faut plus pleurer mon chien imaginaire—au moins pas maintenant. Il est parti au trot par le champ de mes pensées d’automne. Et je suis assez heureux s’il ne revient pas tout de suite. Mon amour marche vers la salle de gym, un endroit aussi branlant que le café ou j’écris. Je suis encore la, tout seul.

Pas encore prêt.

For My Friend Who Died

It is hard to think of Howard (Limoli) not being with us on earth, or that he should have died at all. He was too integral a part of the department for this to have happened. He was like the keel of the ship, if not also its rudder—a man of reasonableness, a kindly presence—unassuming, constant and uninterested, in my memory, in pursuing imbroglios. I know he was a impassioned translator, but what he loved most of all was to button-hole a friend in the parking lot and explain the unbelievable deal he had just made in purchasing a second hand car that a very old and steady person had driven only 2,003 miles in her lifetime. That was when he was boy-like, and I became boy-like and envied him for his important good luck. He had a wry look when he glimpsed an academic intrigue he would not indulge in, and I know he would rather have spent his time in conversations about Dada, Italian and translation. That wry look calmed the hysteria I was quick to embrace. And now in my late years, when I am learning French, of all things, I wish he were around to patiently steer my grammar with his steady, generous hand. I will miss him.

My Apology to France

I take back—if I may—what I said about the TGV (le train à grande vitesse) being a metaphor for why France—where my great-great-grandfather was born—could not conquer Mexico between 1864–1867. For those of you who remember anything about your U.S. History, that was roughly the time of our Civil War. And maybe the only reason we didn’t intervene against both France and Mexico.

I know that’s a lot of information to take in. Especially the part about my great-great-grandfather, whose place in my family tree grants me one thirty-second French blood, and therefore clearly the right to pass judgment on things French.

You can read the whole truth about my great-great grandfather at http://www.sterlingbennett.com, under the title “French Blood,” where you will learn that he owned slaves, traded in the Caribbean with chartered schooners, shipwrecked off the coast of Florida, swam ashore, and was shot full of arrows by Seminole Indians who thought they were getting too many immigrants in their area.

The trolleys of Montpellier run on the same nuclear energy produced électricité that the TGV uses, but do not stop or slow down for bad weather. Why I don’t know. Perhaps it’s because they do not aspire to de la grande vitesse. In fact, they poke along, for the most part, until the drivers—both male and female, I point out—see an open stretch, and then open up the throttle to as much as forty miles an hour.

Maybe this lesser speed has something to do with their shape: they closely represent California’s banana slugs, but that is the extent of their throw-back character, and my thirty-two parts French blood is immensely proud of their technology.

Any great city of the world would be lucky to have them crawling over their streets. They ding their bells a lot but otherwise progress with space age avionics. The drivers sit enclosed in air-conditioned booths with switches and levers and blinking lights and various digital readouts. Cameras point rearward on both sides to alert the driver that a passenger has only managed to get half way in—or out. The drivers’ seats are cushy. The trolley’s progress is coordinated with all kinds of outside track signals that say proceed or slow or proceed with caution. This is to prevent various kinds of collisions with other wheeled but un-tracked vehicles. It doesn’t help at all with passengers that get out and then cross the track right in front of the tram just as it’s about to start; or against the unlit cyclist at night who performs a daring fly-by, in front of the moving trolley, ignoring its three warning dings.

Very much like mating banana slugs, as many as three cars cling to each other. But unlike slugs, you can walk from one car to the other—and bring bikes and animals inside.

So, all in all, France is doing very well, judging by the trolleys of Montpellier. Every city should have a rout of them (group name for snails). And for between cities, maybe a TGV or two. But the type that does not build up static electricity and cause delays and explosions and mysteries for its passengers—and eventually become a metaphor, justly or unjustly deserved, for the country it breaks down in.

So much for my apology. No doubt the country is heaving a sigh of relief, having been redeemed by this one thirty-second of a countryman.