Thursday, September 17, 2015

Refugees and Me

It seems there was an accident with the sideshow. A truck slammed into the stage and they're assessing the damage so now they don't know when (or if) I am needed for the Munich Oktoberfest. Which sucks since I thought I would finally be able to pay almost everyone back. Well, I obviously couldn't stay in Venice since I was nearly out of money and there are not many legal or ethical or remotely pleasant ways for me to refill my pockets in La Serenissima. So I emailed a friend who sent me money for a train ticket back to Berlin. But there was a grant deadline that day for an application that I was being paid to write and I ended up spending part of my train fare at the internet cafe. The arts organization paid me as soon as they could, but the ticket price had already leaped from €120 to €220. So I bought a train ticket from Venice to Munich, and then a bus ticket from Munich to Berlin.

And that's how I ended up stumbling straight into the refugee crisis.

The train ride was really pleasant at first with beautiful views of the Brenner Pass. I finished my novel and went to the dining car to see if there was anything I could afford. My first glance at the menu yielded the word früstück which filled me with dread and dismay. Oh man, German. After a week of enjoying crostini for €1.20 on the steps of crumbling 17th century palazzos overlooking sun-dappled grey-green water, I was going back with no money to Germany where I would have to eat €3 doner kebabs while staring at Soviet architecture. Remind me why? I had half a mind to get off at Padova and never be heard from again. 

When we reached Innsbruck in Austria, a new train conductor began his shift. He started to go through the train stopping at every dark person to ask for a ticket. "No ticket, no money, you go out to platform," he declared to a mystified group of four Africans. Two of them had tickets, two of them paid. He approached the next African, a lady in a pink sweater, who looked at him with incomprehension. A German guy across the aisle volunteered to pay for her. I suddenly realized that the conductor wasn't racial profiling, he was refugee profiling.

About a quarter of the people on the very full train were some sort of African that I wasn't familiar with. For the most part, they were small and thin. They had round eyes and a sharp nose, the kind of nose that is coveted in Asian countries, what my mother calls jiam jiam. Their skin was a rich shade of medium brown with a slight underneath yellow tinge. Most of them wore puffy jackets with a hood sprouting fake grey fur.

At the last little town in Austria, the train stopped for an inordinately long time. Finally, there was an announcement in German that confused all the Italian and English speakers. The guy facing me said that it was something about an unidentified bag. The woman across the aisle said that it was something about refugees. Sure enough, after a few minutes, three policemen with padded jackets and guns escorted a few Africans off the train. They looked like teenagers. We all craned our necks and peered out the window to the platform, where a dozen policemen had rounded up about two dozen Africans. Then the train left the station.

The train arrived in Munich half an hour late. At the end of the platform, there was a phalanx of policemen who were dividing up everyone who had just gotten off the train. The dark people were shepherded to the right where they had to show their travel documents and tickets before they could exit. The Europeans were shuttled to the left where they could exit unimpeded. I wondered whether I would be moved to the right or left. As we got closer, my feet of their own accord veered toward to the refugees on the right. A big German policeman got in front of me and pushed me to the left. Oh, okay, I guess I'm with the Europeans? A hundred years ago, you would've examined my teeth and asked if I had worms.

I had a doner kebab for €3 while staring at the lit up plastic signs of the Hauptbanhof and then I walked the two blocks to the bus station, passing by a shuttle bus where about twenty Africans (mostly men) were waiting to be taken to a shelter. At least that's where I assume they were being taken. They seemed relaxed and happy about it. Two seemed to be playing cards.

I got to the bus station and was pleased that I had timed it perfectly. Only fifteen minutes for the bus to arrive. Little did I know. I had chosen the bus because it gave me an hour and a half to transfer. But I had unwittingly picked the bus that was coming from Salzburg. My dumb luck. The bus was over an hour late because of border controls.

Some guy from the bus company finally showed up to tell us something in German. "What did he say?" I asked the big German guy standing next to me. He was in his 40s, I think, a curly haired guy about 6'5"tall in a white linen suit. He looked upper middle class, educated. "They are telling us to stand over there and the bus will come at 11:00," he responded, "but I am going to change my ticket. You see all these people? They are refugees. I don't want to sit next to someone like that for eight hours. You can catch a disease! They could have tuberculosis! You can sit next to a small boy who hasn't been vaccinated!"

I am not paraphrasing too much. This is what this guy actually said.

We waited and waited and waited. There were about five families camped out next to the bus station office where our extremely late bus was supposed to arrive. Moms and dads and crashed out two year olds in stretchy patterned trousers and clunky plastic sandals. These weren't Africans; they were some kind of Middle Eastern. The women were veiled, the men were bearded. I saw a few medics sporting vests that said Doctors Without Borders in various languages. I wanted to talk to them but a chatty Brazilian guy had buttonholed me with something about dancing the tango.

A bunch of policemen came and told the Middle Easterners that they had to go to the train station. Roused from sleep, the children began crying. The parents grabbed their wrists with a don't-you-start steely grip and yanked them howling through the station, following the policemen, who were power-walking to the train. One little boy tried to get into his stroller but his parents were too anxious to go. They left the double stroller in the bus station, toys still hanging on the lip of the hood.

At 11:20, the bus finally came. The upper level was full of Middle Easterners. I swear that besides me, there were only four other people on the packed bus who weren't from some Muslim country. I sat next to a 17 year old boy who had a slight funk like he had been sweating all day in his velour track suit. He looked at me curiously but he didn't speak English and I doubt if he speaks Chinese or Spanish. I don't think he even speaks German. What will school be like for him? What was school like for him where he came from? Did he manage to attend? I wondered who all these people were and what they were doing on an overnight bus to Berlin. The boy played a video game (pling pling pling) half the night and then he fell asleep, snoring softly. When we arrived in Berlin at 7AM, he was still snoring. His parents across the aisle yelled for him to wake up. But I thought they should let the kid sleep a little more, crumpled up in his velour suit like a breathing bath mat.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Adventures with Mansplaining Americans in Berlin

In Berlin, I’m not meeting guys on the train anymore. But I am still meeting them at swing dances. At the Clärchens Ballhaus, which is purportedly the last original Weimar-era dancehall in Berlin, I met a jazz guitarist whom I’ve gotten pretty close with. I was hanging out with him last week and he needed to pick something up at a recording studio in the Holzmarkt, a really interesting cooperative on the banks of the Spree, right where East and West Berlin used to be divided.
When we arrived, the recording studio engineer was having a tête-a-tête with an older blues musician from Texas. My friend got down to business with the recording studio engineer, which left me in the company of the Texan.  Our conversation quickly devolved into a mystifying argument.
“I’ve been here for twenty years,” Tex kept insisting, “and most of my East German friends don’t speak English.”
When I suggested that they perhaps spoke Russian or Polish, he asserted that his friends don’t speak any other language besides German.
            This is, of course, different than any one else’s experience in Berlin, where it really is rare to find someone who doesn’t speak basic bread-and-butter English.  Well, the Turks in Neukölln don’t always speak English, but of course they speak Turkish since they're Turks. And they probably speak Arabic as well. You don't have to be Sherlock Holmes to see that most Europeans have language skills that Americans don’t. But the Texan purported that he’s acquainted with many Americans who speak more than one language, while his German friends only spoke German. He would not let this issue die either and kept bringing it back even after the conversation had taken another turn. Was this because I'm a woman? or I'm Asian? I have no idea why the Texan would be so adamant unless he just wanted to contradict me and be right, goddammit.

            That was the same day that we went to a party where we met another American who was equally baffling. He said that he’s a historian who writes novels. I told him that I was a writer too. He was interested in the subject of my essays, so I said something about how they’re first person so they’re mostly about being an Asian-American woman and how there are all these cultural expectations and stereotypes that you are constantly fighting. This seemed to rub him in all the wrong ways.
            “I only have three words to say to you,” he proclaimed, “Anna May Wong.” 
“But she’s a prime example of the way Asian-American women are stereotyped,” I countered.
            It turned out that he hadn’t seen any of her films and knew nothing about her except that one photograph where she is standing in between Marlene Dietrich and Leni Riefenstahl at a party in 1928. To him, this somehow proved that there was no such thing as discrimination in Hollywood.

Hot picture, but does this mean Anna May Wong
was fully accepted in the Hollywood system?

          “Name one other Asian actor,” I challenged him and while he struggled to fish Sessue Hayakawa from the recesses of his memory, I told him about Anna May Wong’s fight to land the role of O-Lan in The Good Earth. The part went Luise Rainer, who was Austrian of all things. Wong had to go to Europe to play some less stereotypical characters. Her best film is Piccadilly, an amazingly progressive film for 1929, where she got to be a typical British wench who wore cloche hats and striped sweaters, ate bangers and mash at a greasy spoon, and was an object of desire for not one but TWO white men. If you’ve never seen the film, you are missing out on Wong shaking her sweet little thing on a kitchen table, one of the hottest moments ever recorded. Contrast this with all the Hollywood dreck where she played sultry dragon ladies who speak in the third person, “Lotus Flower commands you to peel her a grape or she will stab you in the eye with her extremely long green pinky nail.
            But according to this guy, discrimination in Hollywood didn’t exist.  And he's supposed to be a historian.
“What do you want me to do?” he suddenly exclaimed, upset, I suppose that I wasn't about to be mansplained, “What. Do. You. Want. Me. To. Do?!”
            “Well…” I replied, trying to take his question seriously, “it would help if you just recognize that this is just the shape of the world.”
            “You know, I hate to say it, but you're acting like a victim,” he suddenly declared, “just like one of those black people.”
            “Um, things are kind of stacked against them,” I ventured, rather amazed at his accusation, “I mean, like, one out of every three black men ends up in jail at some point in his life.”
            “That’s because they committed a crime,” he scoffed dismissively.
My jaw dropped. Does this guy actually think that out of every three black men, one is a criminal? I wanted to ask him what he would think if the statistics said that one out of three white guys were imprisoned in their lifetime, but our conversation was interrupted.
           So okay, there's all this attention in the media lately on white privilege and I hate to jump on the bandwagon, but talk about a textbook case. Here’s a guy completely sheltered in his own self-centered island where it's always warm and breezy. He has no inkling how things are stacked against Asian-Americans in the arts. He’s obviously never walked down a street with a black guy and experienced how they are treated differently. I don’t think he’s even read one article about the crazy racial disparities in the US. Racial profiling? Nah, all those black guys are just a bunch of criminals who deserve what they get. And mansplaining? I bet he's never heard of it.

It’s a bit of a running joke that my musician friend, who is American, pretends that he’s from a small Eastern European country so he doesn’t have to converse to stupid Americans. Maybe it’s because I’m from the East Village that I am surprised by idiocy. I expect everyone to have an interest in culture and some basic understanding of the world. But after that day with the two American blowhards, I’m about ready to tell everyone I’m Inuit. Except I’ll probably be dragged into dumb discussions about rubbing noses or how there are a hundred words for snow.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Manthropology in France

          “You just seem like you’re available,” a male friend of mine told me in France.
This is something that I’ve heard from two possessive ex-boyfriends as well and it always bugs the shit out of me. I have no idea what “available” means and no idea how I’m not suppose to seem “available.” After all, I’m just being me. Am I missing barriers that other people have?  Do other women act more aloof, suspicious, cautious? It’s not like I wear anything that provocative. It’s not like I throw my tits in a stranger’s face while talking. Ah, the burden of being female. Either you’re too “available” or not “available” enough.
And I think there are different behavior expectations in Europe. I remember going barhopping in NYC with a British girl who didn’t know at all that if you accept a drink from a guy, it means you’re going to at least have a conversation with him for the duration of that drink. Which means you don’t accept a drink from someone who is going to bore the hell out of you or offend you. Unless you are curious as to what makes him so moronic. I’ve been known to have drinks with white supremists and Bible thumpers just for anthropology’s sake. It’s like studying a six-legged creature with ten eyes. Really? You exist?

In Paris, I was totally not "available." My heart was still insisting on London for some annoying reason and I had no money to go out anyway. But then I had a Skype conversation with a friend one day, who chastised me for moping. I realized he was right. There are much worse things than being stranded in France. I should just enjoy it. He even lent me $200 just so I would stop worrying and learn to love the bomb.
So I picked my chin off the floor and researched where people go swing dancing in Paris. I learned 1) that swing dancing is called le Rock in France, which is weird since rock is definitely not swing, and 2) there seems to be only one place in Paris to dance le Rock and that’s Le Caveau de la Huchette. Which is even weirder since there is a huge scene in every other major city. A French friend later informed me that swing dancing is something everyone learns in middle school and it’s considered boring and bourgeois. Swing is not an alternative scene in Paris like it is in New York, London and Berlin.
            But I didn’t know this so I got a bit dolled up and went to Le Caveau. There were about a dozen people on the dance floor, most of them grey-haired, also unusual since everywhere else, the average age is around 30. A fantastic London hot jazz band was playing and I would have liked to talk to them but a small French guy who had lived in the Bronx immediately glued himself to my side. The only time I managed to escape him was when a Korean guy cut in and asked me to dance.
The French guy was a bit odd in his dance moves. He seemed to know the basic steps and swing outs, but he kept lifting me up in a way that my only possible response was to straddle his waist. Then, since there were no other physical possibilities, he would turn around and around in place. Awkward is not the word for this. And guys who are territorial totally turn me off. After about three dances with him, I was ready to split.
“Do you want a drink?” he asked.
“Okay, maybe one drink and then I’ll leave,” I said out of politeness.
We went upstairs for the drink and to my surprise, he asked the barman for a coffee. It was about 11pm. The bar didn’t have coffee so he asked if I would get a drink with him at another bar.
            “Okay,” I said, rather regretting that I’d agreed to have a drink with him, “As long as it’s on the way to the metro.”
So we walked along the pedestrian Rue de la Huchette where it seemed every other place was overflowing with packs of booze-infused 20-year olds desperate to find some fun. A few steps and he put his arm around me. It was rather perfunctory, so I wasn’t sure if he was just being friendly or if he had some other intention. Just in case, I very firmly took his arm off my shoulders and looked at him straight in the eyes: sorry buddy, no dice.
            We walked for a moment in silence and then he said, “I live in Arrondissement 10.”
            “That’s nice. I’m in Arrondissement 14 at a friend’s place.”
             We passed by an okay-looking café where two men quietly smoked at small separate tables.
            “Should we sit here?” I asked, wanting to get this drink over with. 
            “I really need woman tonight,” he replied, “We have drink at my place?”
“Sorry,” I said, rather astonished at his frankness, “I’m not interested in going to your place.”
            “No?” he asked.
            “No,” I confirmed.
            “Okay,” he shrugged.
He accompanied me a few more yards to the metro and said goodbye. It was all very cut and dry, yes or no. I’ve had a more stimulating exchange with a vendor at a market stall over a bag of green beans.

I didn't have any more blatant propositions like that in Southern France. But I did have some mystifying encounters. They all took place on the train. Maybe since I wasn't hanging out in bars. But then France doesn't really have the kind of bars or pubs that there are in London or New York. People don't just sit around drinking and do nothing else. Drinking happens at restaurants or cafes or at clubs where something else like dancing or music is going on. So even if I wanted to, it wasn't really possible to just go sit somewhere and have a drink and talk to someone. Instead, guys would approach me on the train.
The first time this happened, it was that Turkish guy who struck up a conversation as we were both waiting for the train to pull up to Nice Ville. At the end of five minutes, he had offered me a couch in his apartment in Cannes. Weird, I thought, but maybe this is how things like this happen in France? I took him up on his offer since I was too broke for a pad in Cannes and he seemed harmless enough. I also immediately offered him a bit of dough so he wouldn’t expect anything else in exchange.  But within a day, I was regretting my decision. There was nothing to say the guy. And his apartment smelled like some feral animal had peed or died in a corner.
So the second time I was on the train to Nice and some Frenchie guy started to talk to me, I was not as surprised when at the end of five minutes he offered me a couch in his apartment in Nice. This time, however, I didn’t take him up on his offer, since I realized that he was just like the Turk and would also bore the hell out of me. He was some provincial French guy who travels through Europe for a company that produces olive oil. I couldn’t discern any common interest in history or art or film or literature or language or even a scrap of curiosity about my film. It was like trying to have a conversation with a Francophone Willie Loman and he didn’t even have a pair of silk stockings to show me.  

The weirdest encounter I had on the train was when I was lugging my two suitcases from Nice to Marseille. A round little African guy came up behind me and grabbed the biggest suitcase, nodding at me a few times. I hurried after him down the platform onto one of those old-fashioned trains with compartments. He made a beeline to a compartment in the middle of the train, stuck my suitcase on a shelf, and there I was, forced to share a private little room with him.  It turned out he was a cook in one of the hotels in Cannes and originally from Senegal. I had a rather tedious conversation with him in pigeon English and French with the help of Google translate. He showed me pictures of food on his iphone and a photo of a celebrity whom I didn't recognize on the red carpet. He was way interested me being a filmmaker. “You. Me. Movie?” he kept repeating excitedly, “You! Me! Movie!!!”
Then just before the train pulled up to Cannes, he suddenly declared, “I take taxi to hotel. You give me €8.”
“Umm,” I replied, utterly mystified, “I don’t have €8 to give you.”
“You give me €8. Taxi, hotel,” he demanded and wrote down “€8” on a napkin just in case I didn’t understand.
“No €8,” I shrugged helplessly, “I don’t have.”
He seemed perplexed and a bit offended. Some cultural thing was totally lost on me. I have no idea if it was an African cultural thing or a French cultural thing.  We both lapsed into silence pondering our vast cultural divide. I was relieved when the train arrived in Cannes and he left with barely a goodbye.

Monday, June 8, 2015

Frumping in France with Friends

Previous: A Poor Connoisseur in Cannes

It was bad enough being poor, but it was horrible also feeling frumpy in Cannes. 

My friends kept telling me it was fine to walk the red carpet in my wrinkled 1960s orange flowered dress that had a tear in the back seam. They thought my other dress would also be all right, even though it was a severe grey and looked like it could have been a costume contender for Mädchen in Uniform. Well, maybe that white dress that I bought for €12 in Paris would’ve been okay, except the skirt was a bit see-through and I only happened to have dark underwear.

Six days after the festival began, my luggage still hadn’t arrived from London. It had been sent by a friend through Voovit, a luggage forwarding company that made no guarantees but said that delivery was usually within two days. I chose Voovit because it was £50 versus £70 for another company that would’ve overnighted the suitcase. This is the problem with being poor. You try to save £20 so you can eat for another day and end up frumping around in the French Riviera for an extra five days.

I’m not a very girly girl. I get bored if I have to spend more than fifteen minutes on my hair and I am not interested in lingerie or jewelry or perfume or beauty products. I’m never in fashion. I refuse to spend more than $150 on a dress. But I do have a gift for glamming it up. It actually took me a long time to realize this; I took it for granted until relatively recently. But seriously, if you have champagne tastes and a beer budget, it’s rather imperative to have a bit of panache.

My style icon has always been Audrey Hepburn. At a bookstore not too long ago, I chanced upon Sam Wasson’s Fifth Avenue, 5AM: Audrey Hepburn, Breakfast at Tiffany’s and the Birth of the Modern Woman where he made the following observation, “People who encountered Audrey’s Holly Golightly in 1961 experienced, for the very first time, a glamorous fantasy life of wild, kooky independence and sophisticated sexual freedom; best of all, it was a fantasy they could make real. Until Breakfast at Tiffany’s. glamorous women of the movies occupied strata available only to the mind-blowingly chic, satin-wrapped, ermine-lined ladies of the boulevard, whom no one but a true movie star could ever become. But Holly was different… Because she’s used style to overcome the restrictions of the class she was born into, Audrey’s Holly showed that glamour was available to anyone, no matter what their age, sex life, or social standing.”

I imbibed that lesson without really being conscious of it the first time I saw an Audrey Hepburn movie when I was about 13. While other girls my age were emulating Madonna, I was copying Audrey’s clipped accent, her correct posture, and quirky mannerisms. Which just made me seem weird and probably rather pretentious since no one understood why I was behaving that way. She was the embodiment of elegance and originality, the exact opposite of the obtuse conventionalism of my family. If you’ve ever wondered why sometimes it seems I have an unplaceable European accent that’s quasi-British, you’ve caught me reverting to my Audrey talk. Which I’ve lately learned to cover up by amping up my New Yawk accent. Much less embarrassing to explain. But I’m still always secretly channeling Audrey in a Givenchy gown, blithely munching on a donut while staring through the window of Tiffany’s at a world completely beyond her means.

At Cannes, I stared through the window at events beyond my means to participate in without formal clothing. Everyone else was dolled up for the premieres, the guys in black tie and women in gowns. At Cannes it’s impossible to be overdressed. But it was also a sea of conventional mass-produced finery. There were few people who were daring or imaginative or even inspirational in their dress. I only saw one guy wearing a waistcoat from the 1920s or 1930s, the kind with the lapels and low opening. And I didn’t see any woman wearing a killer dress that I totally coveted.

But who was I to be the fashion police? Here I was, Ms. Grumpy Frump who was holed up with a boring Turk in a hovel that smelled like cat piss.

After nearly a week sitting out of the glitz, I was feeling rather petulant. I wanted my fabulous gold sequined dress that a boyfriend had bought me for Christmas from one of my favorite stores.  I wanted my couture gown from the 1940s with the plunging slit down the front and bell sleeves decorated with rhinestones. 

My luggage had been sent to my previous couchsurfing host at the edge of Vieux Nice. I had only been there for three nights. So when I left, I taped a note on the door for the delivery to be made to the swank hotel next door, where I had made friends with Norberto, the Brazilian bellman. Of course, I was worried that the note might have fallen off the door or maybe the delivery would occur when Norberto wasn’t there, so every other day I was running back to Nice.

On Monday, I checked the door and hung around the hotel from 4:00 to 5:00. But the luggage didn’t arrive. Nor did it arrive on Tuesday. On Wednesday, I had been granted an invitation for the premiere of Jia Zhang-ke’s MOUNTAINS MAY DEPART and I was way excited to attend. I was blown away by Jia's previous film, A TOUCH OF SIN, which I thought was a shockingly honest account of the anger and emptiness that I had felt from the Chinese the only time I was there. My luggage was sure to arrive, I thought. It would have been exactly a week from the time when it was sent.  So I picked up the invitation in the morning and went back to Nice to intercept the delivery guy. I arrived at noon and spent the entire day camped out at the hotel to no avail.

I should’ve given away my ticket but I was too depressed. I got back to Cannes at around 8pm and didn’t want to go back to the hovel so I holed up at the Steak ‘n Shake and researched some random topics until nearly midnight. Walking back to the hovel, I passed a group of capoeira dancers in front of one of the seafood restaurants, the one where they serve a trough-sized cornucopia of oysters and clams and crawfish. Several people were gathered around with cameras. A man and a woman were standing on either side of the sidewalk, holding what looked to me like a limbo pole, chest high. As I tried to pass, a guy shouted something in French, grabbed my arm and roughly sat me down just as a skinny black guy went volleying past me and leapt over the pole. There was a collective shout and flashes from several cameras. The two people quickly dropped the pole and darted away. “Excuse me,” the man said as he brushed past me. It was John Turturro.

The next day, I did go see the Jia film at the reprise screening but I was done with Cannes. Everyone was leaving anyway and I only had two friends left, both of whom seemed really busy. One of them was my yachtie pal who didn’t respond when I offered him the Jia Zhang-ke ticket. He also didn’t respond when a grant I’d been waiting for finally arrived and I texted him to tell him I could pay him back the €40 I had borrowed. So I was surprised when a jumbled slew of texts arrived from him on Friday evening.  It turned out he had been texting me for two days.  There were six messages in random order, little notes of concern ending with, “Where are you…???” I texted him back that I had just received all of his messages at once. He responded, “I am on the boat 6-9, then screening, then party. Would be nice to see you before I leave tomorrow!”

I was feeling rather dejected after all those days waiting for luggage and laying low at the Steak ‘n Shake so I wouldn’t have to keep bumming drinks from my friends. But at least now that the grant had arrived, I was able to get away from the hovel into a decent hostel in Nice. And I had my first good meal of the entire trip, a homemade gnocchi at a place called Chez Charlotte that was completely unlike the bricks they call gnocchi in New York. It came with dessert and the two courses were an amazing deal at €15. I probably would have been in a better mood if I could’ve had a meal like that every day. I figured the least I could do was give my friend the money I owed him, so I bought him a small cake and headed to Cannes.

I got to the yacht just as before the sun was setting to find him holding court with his French boat-mate and a chic Asian woman from New York. It was a gorgeous day but I was still feeling rather low. I thought I would just give my friend his money and say goodbye, but he stuck a glass of rosé in my hand and sat me down at a table laden with fromage and foie gras and cornichons. Thank heavens for friends. I hadn’t even really seen him in over ten years, but he still knows me well enough to ply me with French cheese and not let me off the boat when I’m feeling like the frumpy runt of a litter that no one wants.

An entourage of people arrived. A dapper actor whom my friend regularly worked with. A French photographer who was employed by four companies to take celebrity pictures. An actress who brought artichokes and maracas. A flamboyant Italian producer who bust out a hyperbolic rendition of My Way, which seemed to be his personal anthem. A young Polish guy who works in social media. “I love Cannes,” the Pole sighed gazing at the hill with the clock tower, “At home no one understands if you don’t work steady job, 9-5, every day. Here, everyone understands.”

At 10:45, I was about to split to make it to the last train to Nice but my friend asked around and found a place for me to stay in Cannes. So I went with everyone to a beach party hosted by the Ukrainian Pavilion, where vodka bottles protruded like spikes from a giant iced punch bowl. I had a conversation with a Swedish actor who looked like Fatty Arbuckle and when I next turned around, everyone was dancing. By the end of the night, when we all got back to the boat for a last rosé, I had recovered my sense of humor enough to dub the yacht Disco Bateau. 

I spent my last days in Cannes hopping from one sofa to another. First with two denizens of Disco Bateau, then with a film programmer friend who was dashing around seeing five films a day.

I joined him for Youth by Paolo Sorrentino, which is about two aging pals at a spa resort in Switzerland, one a reserved British composer who insists on his retirement (Michael Caine) and the other a blustery American auteur trying to finish a screenplay (Harvey Keitel). Our opinions on the film were as divided as the critics; I liked Sorrentino’s stylized tongue-in-cheek absurdity but he thought the film was vacuous and heavy-handed. 

I also went to see Joachim Trier’s Louder Than Bombs, a film about a family coming to terms with the death of the mother, a renowned war photographer played by Isabel Huppert. It was good but a bit too pat, like a made-for-TV drama. As I came out of Louder Than Bombs, I asked the guy sitting next to me what he thought. We were swapping opinions when we noticed that everyone was gathered around monitors watching the award ceremony that was happening elsewhere in the building.

It was an interesting moment of solidarity. Filmmakers, reviewers, cinephiles, security guards, baristas, everyone was watching the screen intently, imbued with a common feeling that something historic was happening. I had forgotten until that moment that Cannes is arguably the most important film festival in the world. The celebrity gawking that I found so eyeball-rolling is really just the surface layer of the festival’s cultural significance. When it was announced that Deepak won the Palme d’Or, there was a collective shout of surprise. Carol had been the frontrunner for the past week.

After the awards, I met my programmer friend downstairs of the Palais and he took me to Pizza Cresci for our last dinner in Cannes. The maitre d' sat us at a table next to a hunched older man with a small mustache and a silk cravat. I wondered who he was and whether he felt okay alone, drinking his beer, the quiet center of a room full of food and laughter. There I was, right next to him, not twenty inches away, and it felt like he was sort of like a mirror. I might channel Audrey Hepburn and look to everyone else like a small Asian woman, but really, I’m a 75-year-old gay New Yawk Jewish guy in disguise.

Which makes me think of Quentin Crisp. Not that he was a New Yawk Jew. But like Audrey, he's another style icon who navigated his way through the world with little more than his impeccable taste and incredible wit. I knew Quentin in his last years and like other people, I worried about how he survived . I always made it a point to invite him to anything I knew about where there was food. It was a win-win: everyone loved having a downtown celebrity among them dishing up bon mots and Quentin could have a huge meal. He himself called it "singing for his supper." 

Lately, I worry that I'll end up like Quentin, always a little hungry, living in a hovel without any beautiful things, and relying upon invitations to come eat. I wish I had his same easygoing aplomb. But then he played Queen Elizabeth in a fantastic film by Sally Potter, so maybe it's not always so bad relying upon the kindness of strangers. Somehow I've managed to exist a whole month in France doing the Blanche Dubois.  Frumpy as I've been.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

A Poor Connoisseur in Cannes

Previous: An Invitation for a Kiss

The Marché du Film feels much more real to me, with its labyrinth of trade booths, just downstairs but a world away from the hype of Todd Haynes' Carol, which is screening for the first time today. The press saw Carol last night and there is a minor freakout going on in Cannes over the film. There must be fifty desperate people outside holding signs, “Invitation pour Carol SVP.”
Doc Corner is having consulting sessions at the moment and later today there are drinks. On Monday, Dennis Lim from Lincoln Center is part of a panel discussion with Thom Powers of TIFF. And Tuesday there are one-on-one meetings with various festival heads and sales agents but you need a Marché badge. I’ll come by tomorrow morning and see if I can book a meeting with an interesting person. And if so, I’ll spend the €30 for a Marché badge on Tuesday.

I’ve met a lot of people but so far, I’m not sure if anyone will be more than a passing acquaintance. There are a lot of parties, a lot of schmoozola. It’s all rather tiring and I’m also rather worn down with worrying about money and dealing with my Turkish host, who speaks very little English and bores me to death.
“What films do you like?” I asked in desperation to find something to talk about. I had to type this into Google Translate for him to understand.
He spent three minutes typing something painfully into my iphone. To my surprise, it was one word, “Action.”
I typed back, “No I mean, what are the names of the films you like? Or the names of some directors?” 
He reads the translation out loud very slowly and then replies, “Jason Statham. I like.”
I google Jason Statham and type, “Oh, he’s an actor. What do you like about Jason Statham?”
“Jason Statham. I like.”
Uninspiring is an understatement. He’s not even eye candy and he has no idea how to dress. He’s one of those guys who wears jeans with bad bleach stains and t-shirts that say ARMANI. And his apartment is a hovel. The kitchen cabinet has fallen off the wall and is resting on the counter and half of the stove. The toilet tilts to the left rather alarmingly when you sit on it. There is a constant drip from what looks to be the water heater, collected by a Tupperware tied underneath, which is continually overflowing. Worse, there is an odor in the bathroom that I can’t get used to and permeates the entire apartment. It smells like a feral animal, like cat pee or skunk pee, it’s acrid and eye-watering. But on the other hand, I have a place to sleep right in Cannes at only €25 per night, so I can’t really complain too much. It sure beats running to catch the last train to Nice at 11pm.

I met the Turk on the train to Nice. Yeah, no idea how. Some angel with a peculiar sense of humor was watching over me that day.
Before I arrived in Cannes, I had booked two couch surfing hosts. The first guy was in Nice and the second one was in St. Laurent du Var. Free accommodation within a 30 minute train ride was amazing, but it was difficult to keep to a 10:45pm curfew in Cannes. The first night I managed to pull a Cinderella and I got to the station just a minute before the last train left for Nice, but the second night, I missed the train completely and had to spend the night on the spare bed in a friend’s hotel.
That was supposed to be my final night in Nice, so the morning I met the Turk, I was on my way back to pack up. But I didn’t know where I was going. The couch surfing host in St. Laurent du Var had cancelled. I spent 15 minutes on the train, struggling with the airbnb app on my iphone trying to secure another place to stay. I gave up when I heard the announcement, “Prochaine arret, Nice Ville.”
A scrawny brownish guy stood up also and followed me to the door, where we stood opposite one another, waiting for the train to pull up to the station.  After a while, he struck up a conversation. Well, it was sort of a conversation since his English is awful and my French is worse. When he found out that I about to give someone on airbnb €30 per night, he offered me his couch. “Mon appartement ici,” he said, pointing at an imaginary spot on the door, “et la Croisette ici. Vous en peut marcher en cinq minute.” He walked his fingers in an L shaped pattern to another imaginary spot, clicking his tongue at every imaginary step. “What’s the catch?” I wondered, but I sized him up as someone harmless and rather simple, so I agreed.
It turns out that the catch is utter boredom. And he follows me around. I have to tell him every morning that I’m going to the Marché du Film and he can’t come in without a badge. I think part of the problem is that he doesn’t understand film as a business. Every time I mention the Marché, I could see his wee mind trying to adjust to the idea of a Marché for films like the Marché near his house where zucchinis with flowers and ridgy tomatoes and candied fruit are bought and sold.

I really love the Marché near his house. It’s called Marché Forville and it’s open every morning except Monday, when there is an antique market there instead, a fact that the Turk didn’t seem to know. He told me that it was only open on Sunday but then it’s quite obvious that he doesn’t cook and isn’t interested in beautiful local produce or the life of an outdoor market.
The Marché Forville is clearly the center of the eastern end of Cannes, which is the oldest part of the town. There are fewer tourists and it's poorer, but much more genuine and really beautiful, with steep winding streets cobbled with smooth yellowish stone. I almost forget about the squalor and pissy smell when I step out of the Turk’s building. Almost, but not quite. As I wander past the fancy touristy restaurants on Rue St Antoine, I wish I weren’t on a rather impossible budget of $12 a day, which I wouldn't even have if a friend hadn't lent me some money. Then I turn down a pedestrian shopping drag, where I can’t afford anything, not that I’m terribly interested in cheap shoes or souvenir t-shirts or a shop where you could buy a checked apron and have a woman embroider it with your name in cursive script. But still, it’s depressing having so little in your pocket and nothing but three wrinkly dresses to wear that probably smell like cat piss.

After a few days, I got into a routine of escaping from the Turk in the morning to have a coffee and croissant at Café des Poets, an unpretentious café-bar that had wifi. It was decorated with black and white photos from the 1950s and a framed pair of jeans. The clientele were an oddball bunch of weathered locals. Small tan women with purse-sized dogs and wizened guys who stand while drinking their kir or pastis. I learned later that this place had been around for more than forty years. Every morning, a round guy with glasses would greet me with a jovial, “Bonjour madame, café Americain et une croissant?”
During the day, I would slowly drift west. After a day of deliberating whether I ought to pay €80 for a 3-day Marché badge or €98 for a late registration festival badge, I managed to score a free badge from a friend who had registered for the Short Film Corner but decided not to attend. With the Short Film Corner badge, I had access to everything except Marché screenings and free wifi.
It didn't matter that I couldn't see Marché screenings since there were plenty of reprise screenings that I could attend, but the lack of wifi was a real problem. My British phone plan works well in the UK, but abroad, it costs 45 pence per MB. I’ve been using £10 every other day just sending texts and looking up information online. If I’d known better, I would’ve just gotten a €35 SIM card from one of the vendors in the Palais building. Instead, refilling my phone has drained me of £80 in two weeks. So my daily routine has been divided between chasing film funding and wifi.
I spend an hour or two in the morning at the Café des Poets, catching up on emails and researching the people I’d met the previous day. After that, I meander over to the Marché to find some people to converse about my various projects. Then I’d often end up at the Italian Pavilion, which gives me a fantastic view of the Mediterranean and unlimited free coffee, while allowing me to siphon wifi from the American Pavilion next door.
I didn’t like the American Pavilion. It’s full of gregarious filmmakers in their 20s whom I have very little in common with. And everything costs an arm and a leg. I paid €10 for a salad once comprised of five small mozzarella balls and a few watery slices of tomato on a thin bed of undressed lettuce leaves. And just to enter during the day, you have to register and pay $150. No other international pavilion has an entry fee. They do open their doors to the public at 6pm for a cocktail hour, but drinks are all over €8. In New York City that might be fine, but just to give you some perspective, in most of France, a glass of wine is about €4.
The only other place that I could get wifi was Steak 'n Shake, which had an upstairs area with tables conveniently placed by windows and electrical sockets. You could also get an okay vegetarian sandwich with fries for €8 so I would usually have dinner there. I was at the Steak 'n Shake so often, a friend jokingly called it my office. Because I didn't have any money and I didn't want to go back to the hovel, I probably spent a few too many lonely nights in the office, researching random subjects and wondering where I was going after Cannes. Sometimes, though, I did go on a trek with friends to random cocktail hours and beach parties and we would end up on the fancy western side of town at the Petit Majestic, where it seemed there was a nightly gathering of a few hundred people that took up the entire sidewalk around the bar. 
Then I’d wander back east to the hovel. Usually the Turk wouldn’t be back yet but once, I returned to find him parked on the couch I slept on, texting or whatever. I had to awkwardly shuffle back and forth in the doorway until he decided to get up.

One day, a film distributor whom I’d met at Doc Corner dragged me to a film. He was shocked that I hadn’t made much of an effort to see any of the films and couldn’t understand that this wasn’t my priority at the festival. “There’s a film in fifteen minutes and we’re going to see it,” he declared. We hightailed down the Croisette weaving through an enormous crowd gaping at the red carpet even though there wasn’t a premiere going on and there was nothing to see except a staircase covered by a rug.
It turned out we were seeing the second part of Arabian Nights by Miguel Gomes. The entire film was six hours long, so it had been divided into three parts. I had heard about the opus from a film programmer friend, who liked the director’s idea to tie tales from the Arabian Nights to current events in Portugal but was rather iffy about the execution. He also said that it reminded him a little of Pasolini’s A Thousand and One Nights. I could see what he meant. The story structure was similar and something about the mysteriousness of the characters, but the director didn’t come anywhere near the aching beauty or ravishing sensuousness of Pasolini’s film, which is a feverish dream of orange light and sandy vistas and gorgeous people with lithe brown bodies getting it on. In contrast, Gomes’ film is atmospheric but a little too abstruse. As the film segued from a story about an outcast hiding out in the hills to an oddly medieval-looking trial of a mother and son for selling furniture that didn’t belong to them, my distributor friend got impatient.
“Are you digging it?” he asked without even an attempt at being quiet.
“Well…” I whispered, not sure what to say. The second story had just begun.  
“I’m going to check out the Italian party,” he said without waiting for me to finish. He stood up and after a moment, I reluctantly followed him out. I had to go to the bathroom anyway.

Later, when I talked to him about the film, it was odd to me that he had only seen one Pasolini film.  I mean, he had lived in Italy for over ten years, speaks Italian with near fluency, and he identifies himself as a film buff. I forgot which Pasolini he’d seen; he said it really quickly as if he didn’t want me to ask questions.
I’ve also never met anyone who attends films the way he does. He doesn’t think you can get an idea of a film through its synopsis and consequently he has a scattershot method of randomly picking films based on what time they began. And if he doesn’t like the film, he would just walk out. “I trust my taste,” he says. Well, yes, me too, but I don’t think you can understand a film unless you’ve seen it through. I mean, I suppose if a film is utterly banal and formulaic and you know how it’s going to end, perhaps you might walk out, but that Portuguese film was definitely not paint-by-numbers. I’m probably a bit too careful about the films I choose to see, basing my decisions upon the synopsis, the reviews, the director, and the actors, usually in that order. But that's because a film affects me for days or weeks sometimes. “I’m an omnivore,’’ he declared. Okay, well then I suppose I’m a snobby connoisseur. 

By the time Tuesday rolled around, I had been at the Cannes Film Festival for six days and I was more than ready to go. But my luggage still hadn’t arrived.

Next: Frumping in France with Friends

Monday, June 1, 2015

An Invitation for a Kiss

Previous: From Nice to Cannes

Without a badge, you can only march around the periphery.

The Festival de Cannes is set up around the harbor on a strip called the Croisette, which makes me think of croissant, and indeed it’s sort of crescent shaped. During the festival, the Croisette is lined by a long row of pimped-out white tents. These are the International Pavilions where film commissions of various countries tout their Cannes contenders and try to entice filmmakers with promises of interesting locations and great tax breaks.

Smack dab in the middle is the huge Palais building, which houses the Marché du Film. This also happens to be the building where the gala screenings take place, so twice a day, the Croisette is an impenetrable clusterfuck of paparazzi and rubbernecking celebrity hounds.  Dozens of desperate people carry signs pleading for gala invitations. Most poignant to me are the 20-something year old girls, dolled up in cheap stretchy gowns and clunky heels. I passed a pretty girl with straw colored hair and glossy pink lipstick. She was carrying a sign marked with a heart that said, “Une invitation pour un baiser.” Our eyes met in amused cynical solidarity. Ah well, sister, we both know the score, this is how to make things happen, more power to you.  

It’s not like the Berlin Film Festival, where tickets are sometimes scarce but there's never a fever pitch of desperation. I texted the two or three people I knew in Cannes as I crawled down the fancy side of the Croisette with hordes of people in the intense sun, passing designer dress shops and sprawling hotels. At the end of the Croisette, I still hadn't gotten any response from my friends, so I crossed the street to the honky-tonk beach side of the Croisette. There were kiosks selling crêpes and glacé and club jambon. Next to a carousel. a French brass band wearing orange polo shirts was braying Cabaret Dixieland style, “Wilkommen, bienvenue, welcome! ‘appy to see ju again!”

It was 3:00 by this time and I was famished. I turned inland, hoping to find eats for under €3. In New York City, I’ve gotten used to figuring out how to eat with an extremely pinched pocket. You can get a bagel with tomato and cream cheese for $1.80. Or you can get a falafel sandwich for $2.50. If you have a kitchen, well, you can have a really amazing meal for $3 with a bag of pasta, one zucchini, and a plum tomato or a handful of mushrooms. In Cannes, I couldn’t find anything close to a meal for less than €4 so I settled for the largest pastry I could find. It was called a diamant and had an apricot in the middle and it was €1.60. I was wondering where to eat it when I heard two ladies studying a map say something like, “Well that’s the train station across the street.”

Aha, I thought, the train station! There must be wifi and electricity there.  So I scuttled my tired feet and diamant pastry over to the Gare du Canne.

Sadly, the Gare did not have wifi and you couldn’t even get water for free since the bathroom cost 50 centimes. But there was a table with electrical sockets so I plunked myself down, plugged in the dying computer, and attacked my pastry. Maybe I was just starving, but it was incredibly good, the cream under the apricot was deliciously light with just the perfect amount of vanilla and sugar.

I did some writing and then one of my friends finally got back to me; an Irish writer who lives in Paris. He had a press badge and was on a marathon of four or five films each day. “Let’s do a walkabout,” he said, “And then I’ll buy you a coffee at a place where you can wifi. After that, I’ll have to be on my way to a film.”

He seemed to be in a rush so I didn’t tell him that I would far prefer food to caffeine. We went to a nearby hotel where he vacuumed up several movie magazines. Then we walked back down the Croisette until we saw a café called Br@sserie, which seemed it must have wifi but there was something wrong with the connection. The waitress insisted that wifi worked and indicated a British guy squinting at his computer. I went up to the British guy and asked him what the secret to wifi was, but he shrugged and said he couldn’t get online either.

My Irish friend got into conversation with a Chicano sitting next to us. We learned that he was whiling away the afternoon hours while his brother attempted to talk his way into some funding for his next film. Then after throwing two €2 coins on the table, my Irish friend split. I made a small attempt to talk to the Chicano, but there wasn’t much to say beyond something about the lack of transportation in California and how I once took a bus from Tijuana down to the Baja peninsula. Finally, another friend, who had scored a room on a yacht, texted me to meet up for dinner.

By then, I was pretty faint with eating nothing but bread and sugar all day. If I ever pass out on you or seem strangely sluggish, just feed me please.

Hunger is a terrible feeling. It’s impossible to think about anything else.  Your whole being shrinks into an empty little pebble shell of anxiety. And it’s more than just physical, there is something psychologically debilitating about hunger. It eats at your confidence and your feeling of self-worth, which I don’t have enough of anyway. Hunger is deeply degrading. Love, art, ambition, the sunshine and blue sky of a beautiful day, none of that matters when you are hungry. You are reduced to nothing but a physical function. And if you are hungry often enough, it’s difficult to recover, to come back to a belief in love and dreams and the importance of your ambitions.

Sometimes I think this is part of my confusion and lack of fight in the past several years. I mean, I was homeless and even more penniless as a teenager but I don’t remember really going hungry then. I’ve always had a troubled relationship with the money god, but lately, he’s been downright mean, waiting until I’m down to my last few dollars before he decides to reward my efforts with a chunk of change. It’s never been a goal of mine to make a pile of money, but now I would love to always have enough to eat whatever I want, whenever I want to.

Many years ago, while working at a Japanese restaurant, I looked up from putting in an order to see a brown-skinned Asian woman shoving sushi in her mouth with her hands. She was sitting with a much older white guy in sunglasses, who was smugly drinking a beer with one hand, while his other hand crawled up and down her skirt like an ugly spider covered with brown spots and fine hair. Not that this seemed to bother her. She was totally focused on the food in front of her. She looked like she hadn’t eaten in weeks. She looked like had never learned to use utensils. She was cramming fistfuls of food down her throat as fast as she could. Rice was stuck to her chin. Chunks of fish dribbled from her mouth. But she was dressed in a pink Madison Avenue silk suit and her hair was coiffed in a perfect dome. It looked like her sugar daddy had picked her up from a boat where everyone else had died of starvation, taken her shopping and then to a hairdresser, before thinking he ought to feed her.

I looked at her in disgust and pointed her out to my fellow waiter. At that moment, she noticed me and immediately dropped a handful of sushi that she had been about to stuff in her mouth. Her eyes popped open and she gawked at me, her mouth open and still full of food.  I suddenly realized that by some peculiar chance, I was the only Asian woman working at the restaurant that day. She gaped me like I was a vision, like I was someone she so very much wanted to be. Her eyes followed me hungrily around the room with a terrible desperation and longing. It was uncomfortable and unnerving and I shrank from the spotlight of her terrible gaze. I avoided her. I bustled around like she wasn't looking at me. But now I wish I could’ve made her some tea, given her a hug, let her talk and have a cry on my shoulder. Ah sister, you do what you have to do. Maybe after you’ve eaten regularly for a while, you’ll remember who you are again.

I met my yachtie friend at the square near MacDonald’s and he took me to the grocery store in Cannes, which is on the eastern side of town. We picked up pasta and sauce and cheese. While he wasn’t looking, I grabbed a few cherry tomatoes, stuffed them in my mouth and immediately wished I had more. Then we went to his boat and I devoured half a loaf of bread with some kind of olive tapenade while he boiled water for pasta. Two of his friends came on the boat as the sun set and we shared a rosé wine over a plate of penne.

For the first time that day, I felt sated enough to enjoy how beautiful Cannes is. A crazy quilt of apricot colored houses with terracotta roofs covered a hill topped by a tower. Seagulls shrieked and turned cartwheels as the sky turned pink and purple. The yacht bobbed in the water, as if it were nodding yes yes yes to the end of the day and the beginning of a gorgeous night.   

Next: A Poor Connoisseur in Cannes