by Jonah Raskin
(Swans - November 4, 2013) The last few weeks, I've been thinking about Paris and talking to myself in French. Not surprisingly, I'm going to France for three weeks and in my head I'm already there, strolling along a boulevard, my neck wrapped in a scarf to keep off the chill. It seems like a good time to go, though every time I've gone over the past forty years has seemed like a good time to go. There hasn't been a bad time ever since that first trip in the summer of 1961 -- the summer that Hemingway committed suicide and that I read The Sun Also Rises, and tried to discover Hemingway's Paris. I didn't succeed. Instead, I discovered Henry Miller and J.P. Donleavy thanks to a Welsh teenager I met and who I thought was the hippest kid in all of Paris. I lived on bread. He lived on canned peas. We thought we were the coolest of cool, though no Parisians gave us the slightest attention.
The French have known for a long time what was best about America and what was worst about it, too. I remember the Humphrey Bogart film festival I attended in Paris -- a real watershed in my life -- and I remember visiting the widow of Richard Wright, the African-American novelist and author of Native Son, who had left the U.S. to live in exile on the Left Bank. Not just for Wright and his family, but for many other Americans, Paris felt like a refuge and a sanctuary. To me, it seemed a place where I could stretch myself and not feel self-conscious. The café -- almost any café around the corner -- felt like a mini-paradise where one could sit and drink and eat -- or not -- for hours and watch the walkers on the pavement.
The first bullet holes I ever saw (in the wall of a building) were in Paris. That was at the end of the Algerian War. The first uniformed men with automatic weapons that I saw were also in Paris -- outside an embassy. I remember the sense of shock, and the realization that here, too, was a police state. In the fall of 1970 I caught the tail end of the French student protests, wandered through streets where trees were turning the spectacular colors of autumn, and met teenage anarchists living at home with their parents.
This time, I know I'll be in Paris and Toulouse where I have been before and in Colmar and Bordeaux where I've never set foot. I've tried to imagine what they'll look like, but I stop myself before I go very far. I want to be surprised. I know I'll be surprised. I hope that I hear indignant Frenchmen and Frenchwomen complain about the U.S. spying on them. Yes, it's a good time to visit France. It always is. (To Be Continued).
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About the Author
Jonah Raskin is a professor emeritus in communication studies at Sonoma State University in California and is the author of Field Days: A Year of Farming, Eating and Drinking Wine, The Mythology of Imperialism: A revolutionary Critique of British Literature and Society in the Modern Age, and For the Hell of It: the Life and Times of Abbie Hoffman. He lived and taught in Belgium in the 1980s. He is the editor of The Radical Jack London: Writings on War and Revolution. He also worked in Hollywood in the 1980s and wrote the story for the movie Homegrown. To learn more about Jonah, please read his entry on Wikipedia. (back)