Thursday, October 29, 2009

"La Mordida" Lives!

In a recent post about bribes, I mentioned the various names that exist for the process of extracting money from you -- when you don't want to pay up.

In Italy it's "La Bustarella," the little envelope. In West Africa they call it "A bit of dash." Latin America employs the term "La Mordida," the bite.

And it seems to be still going on.

Recently some American tourists, driving around Cancun, were stopped by the police and charged with drunk driving, though they had not been drinking. It was explained that the cops would have to take them to jail unless they came up with three hundred dollars.

They paid up. The N Y Times reports that "The officers' 'mordida,' which translates as 'a little bite,' is standard practice in Mexico."

But one of the women in the car was a state senator from Minnesota; she began a campaign, writing officials and news organizations on both sides of the border. She ultimately received a check for 4,000 pesos, about $300.

So it seems you can still get bitten, but you can also get unbitten.

Sunday, October 25, 2009


There’s an interesting piece in the N Y Times today by Peter Mayle. You remember Peter Mayle – “A Year in Provence”?

He’s writing about the strange custom we have called “Halloween,” something that, up until a couple of decades ago, the French had never heard of. But they have it now; they call it “l’alowine.”

I remember that years ago we had French au pairs over to help take care of the children. Toward the end of October each au pair would be mystified by all that was going on at that time of year: folks with ghoulish costumes, wearing masks, a strange emphasis on pumpkins, etc.

I would try to explain. You have the same holiday we do, All-Saints Day, also known as All-Hallows Day. In France you call it Toussaint. Well, the evening before a big holy day it’s sort of normal to have some fun; you weren’t supposed to have fun on a big holy day. So we have this celebration that is known as All-Hallows Eve, now known as Halloween.

When I mentioned pumpkins, they would say: I see, soup. No, I explained, you cut up the pumpkin and place it in the window. That wasn’t much help for them to understand the holiday.
I didn’t tell them of my belief that three-quarters of the children over here taking part in these shenanigans have no idea why or what the holiday means.

But gradually this custom of ours has drifted across the Atlantic. Mayle mentions the first time, years ago, a French friend of his heard someone at the door toward the end of October and when he opened it he was astonished to see bloodstained ghouls and vampires, witches, a variety of evil spirits and even one tiny kid dressed as a pumpkin, all calling for bonbons.

Today, evidently, the celebration has firmly caught on in France. Mayle recently saw a sign in a store window: “N’oubliez pas l’alowine!” “Don’t forget Halloween!”

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Paris Portraits

I’ve never actually dipped a madeleine in my tea – primarily because I don’t have any madeleines (and not much tea) – but I had a distinctly Proustian reaction to the “Paris Portraits” exhibition that ran at a local museum some months ago. It took me back to memories of an earlier time as I walked among the pictures of famous Parisians of the past.

Flash back a number of years. An eager young writer-producer, bright-tailed and bushy-eyed, was on a first assignment for a major production company: I was to write and produce a film on Paris, which would have a sequence devoted to the American expatriates of the 1920s. It was for Universal-International and was to be titled “One Man’s Paris.”

Doing my research on the scene, I was pleased to learn that Sylvia Beach, another famous name from those Parisian roaring twenties, was still around. I phoned her and asked if we could get together. She suggested meeting at the cafe named Le Select. The Select! That rang a bell. There couldn’t have been a better place for such a meeting.

“’Café Select,’ he told the driver, ‘Boulevard Montparnasse.’” (Jake Barnes in Ernest Hemingway’s “The Sun Also Rises.”)

Cafes then were, and to a degree still are, central to Paris life – writers wrote in them, painters painted them – and the Select (which has only been around for eighty years or so) represented the best traditions of the Parisian café. Sylvia Beach arrived and we had a wonderful conversation. She was then an elderly lady, but was full of youthful energy and vitality and she became very interested in the documentary I was there to make. She knew everything about the era in question, about all those earlier expatriate Americans, where they used to live and the cafes where they used to hang out.

La Coupole was just across the street, and that was just steps away from La Rotonde and Le Dome at the next corner, but Le Select was the jewel of the crown – not just for the Americans but for people who came from all over the world. It was indeed a pleasure, sitting in that famous café, to have pointed out to me just where in the place Henry Miller used to meet Anais Nin for afternoon drinks, where Luis Bunuel sat, and which was young Pablo Picasso’s favorite spot. In our 21st century groups of Japanese tourists continue to show up, asking to see Hemingway’s table.

No question, the Select had its attractions, but it was no more interesting than the lady I was talking with. Living in Paris at the end of World War I, a New Jersey girl named Sylvia Beach had opened an English language bookstore and lending library that thousands came to know as Shakespeare and Company. She started her store just as the franc dropped in value and the exchange rate became very favorable so the shop flourished. It became a hangout for Americans.

As I spoke with her, I remembered that Shakespeare and Company had gained considerable fame after she more or less single-handedly published James Joyce’s “Ulysses” in 1922, as a result of Joyce's inability to get an edition out in English-speaking countries. She had gone into debt to bankroll the publication. Joyce would later show his gratitude by financially stranding her when he signed with another publisher, leaving Sylvia Beach in debt and suffering severe losses from the publication of that book.

Things went from bad to worse for her because of the depression of the thirties. She managed to stay open because André Gide organized a group of writers into a club called Friends of Shakespeare and Company, which got a lot of publicity and helped the business to improve.

Then came World War II. The shop tried to remain open after the fall of Paris, but by the end of 1941 Sylvia Beach was forced to close. She kept her books hidden in a vacant apartment. It’s now a fable of our time that, as Paris was being liberated, Ernest Hemingway – reckless, flamboyant, heroic – drove up in a jeep to liberate Sylvia and her bookstore.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Bribing Letterman

We’ve had quite a discussion of bribes recently within these four walls, and while it was going on I got to thinking there was another bribe case, a famous one, taking place at the same time out in the real world.

Of course, the David Letterman situation has more to do with criminal extortion than just a bribe, but the similarity was striking.

Money was demanded of a person. This called for a decision: should he pay or not pay?

If he did not pay, he was assured there would be bad consequences; personal information would be released that could be disastrous for his career, as well as threatening for his family life.

Letterman decided not to pay. I have no idea what the personal info was. Surely there must be one or two other cases where showbiz celebrities have fooled around with members of the opposite sex, so that can’t be it. Perhaps it has to do with things of a more serious nature. I suppose this will all be coming out in the coming weeks.

In the meantime, this much is true. David Letterman was told he had to pay up – in a way it was very similar to being forced to pay a bribe – and he refused to do so.

Saturday, October 10, 2009


We’ve been reading a lot about the bribing of politicians lately; seems to be a lot of it going on. And not just in Chicago.

They tell me that bribery is a crime. What I don’t understand is this: if it’s a crime to solicit, to ask for or demand, a bribe, is it also a crime to pay the bribe – even if you have no choice in the matter?

Let’s go back a few years. I had a great job at the time, traveling around the world making motion pictures for major film companies and business organizations. I loved it. To be given interesting, challenging assignments, to stay in the best hotels, all expenses paid by happy, smiling clients and sponsors – surely there wasn’t a better way to earn a living.

It was great, but there was a fly in the vichyssoise. To get in to these various countries you had to deal with the local bureaucracy and that meant, among other things, you had to go through customs.

For the tourist in those days, going through customs overseas was a simple process. The American passport, the sincere smile, and you usually won yourself the little chalk mark on your luggage that showed you had passed the test and were allowed in the country.

Ah, but when you tried to waltz through with seven or eight cases of motion picture and sound equipment, which is the way I used to travel…

It was then a fairly common sight in foreign airports: groups of sweating, worried-looking men and women struggling to load large, shiny metal cases into the micro-Renault or mini-Fiat or whatever other transportation was all that was available for rental at that particular airport.

They were easily identifiable as film-makers – back when professional movies were made with film cameras, not tiny digital devices like today’s camcorders – because that meant lugging large, expensive, sensitive equipment all around the world.

And they also had to have with them a number of cases loaded with 35mm wide-screen color negative, which was needed for the production of theatrical-distribution motion pictures.

In addition to all this, there was that difficulty I mentioned earlier: going through customs.

Whether it was the douane or the zoll, or whatever other term that was employed in the local language, you had to pass through customs to get into the country, and the wonderful thing about customs was that you never knew what would happen.

There were always little men in weird uniforms waiting at the airport to shake you up.

The customs service, in any nation you cared to name, was an official organization of considerable importance. It often came complete with some sort of Captain Midnight uniform for the personnel, along with a little pennant to hang up on the wall which usually featured a Latin phrase.

I offer the following examples. First, this happened in a German-speaking country. “Guten Morgen,” I said. I speak fluent German, as long as it stays on this level. “Guten Morgen,” replied the customs officer, who you would have sworn was Sig Rumann in an old Marx Brothers movie. He had a broad smile. Customs officials smile a lot, when they know they’ve got you.

I explained, at a somewhat slower pace due to the dismaying intricacies of the language, that I had come to pick up my cases of equipment. I handed him official-looking document. He stamped it with official-looking stamp and gave it to official-looking flunky. Flunky wheeled in equipment.

“All is in order,” he said. “Come back Tuesday and you can have it.”

“Tuesday!” I cried. “This is Friday!”

Another broad smile. “The man who must sign has left, since it is late Friday afternoon. He does not work Saturday or Sunday. Monday, of course, is a national holiday. Come back Tuesday and you can pick it up.”

So I went to the hotel and spent four days running up the expense account. I had hoped to hire people and have the entire sequence, the most important scenes in the movie, completed in a week. The production schedule was pretty well shot and I hadn’t even started.

But the truth is, the problem usually had to do with money.

In a number of countries, there was a routine you had to go through, and it was often pretty much the same: one of the men would say that everything was in order but there was just one thing: a little something for the customs officer.

The request was never a surprise. In my years of handling various film assignments in all the European countries, throughout the Far East, the Middle East, South America, etc., I had frequently been asked for “a little something.”

In Latin America they call it “la mordida,” the bite. In Italy, it’s “la bustarella,” the little envelope. In West Africa it’s known as “a bit of dash.”

And what did I do about it, when they put this mordida on me? I went along. I handed over the money. Fighting City Hall was tough enough back home, but in a foreign land an angry customs official could easily “lose” a case or two of expensive camera gear.

Or a few handfuls of sand thrown into the cases was all that it would have taken to have brought the entire expedition to a grinding halt.

The question I’m wondering about today is, if this was extortion, a crime, was I also committing a crime by paying the money? It’s worth mentioning that the sums in question were distinctly minor-league: in those days something like forty dollars or so was the usual demand, easily covered by the production budget. But I never felt I had a choice, to pay or not to pay.

Well, if it was a crime, I suppose the statute of limitations has run out by now.

But again, it was the variety of the customs experience that made it challenging, and interesting. In Lisbon, no “bite” was asked for, but the officials spent what seemed to be an hour adding up figures for the customs charges, which included a number of additional impossible-to-understand assessments, and they then presented me with a bill for the total – which came to $9.38 in American money.

In Denmark they charged me nothing but before letting me through, the customs officer told me a joke. (All Danes knew of the success of Victor Borge in the States and would tell you a joke immediately upon learning you were an American.)

The other problem with customs was created by the film I brought with me. Surely the customs chaps should have realized that if you’re there to shoot a film you’ve got to have some film to shoot. But there was something about a sealed box, a box that could not be opened, that went against everything they believed in.

(If the film was unexposed, the average customs official would display an intense desire to open each roll and examine it to make sure it was unexposed.)

One sat down to play the customs game with trepidation; it was a game they usually won. As I mentioned, the customs services often would have an official Latin phrase on the pennant that was hanging on the wall behind them. They all seemed to have an unofficial one, too: “Omnes Chartas Tenemus.” (“We Hold All the Cards.”)

Ever find yourself in a similar situation, where you had to pay a bribe and felt you had no other choice?

Tuesday, October 6, 2009


I always enjoyed reading “Winnie the Pooh” to my kids; it gave me a chance to act out the parts.

They’ve grown past Winnie the Pooh age now and would no longer be interested, but when they were small they got a kick out of such readings. Eeyore was easy; you just dropped your voice an octave or so and added overtones of melancholia and weltschmerz. Pooh, humble and naïve, wasn’t difficult either. Piglet’s lines were delivered in a higher register as he was lively and full of spirit.

So I was interested indeed to read that A A Milne has published a new book of the series: “Return to the Hundred Acre Wood.”

Seemed a bit odd since A A Milne died a half-century or so ago.

Turns out that it’s a new book in the series all right, but it’s by someone else, David Benedictus. If you’ve got to do a sequel of a classic, his is the way to do it. He has done a remarkable job of capturing the tone, the voice, the spirit of the original work, and the new illustrator does the same – you’d swear the pictures in the new book are by Ernest Shepard, the original artist who turned Milne’s creatures into world-famous icons.

But there’s a question.

Should a great classic be rewritten? Why? After all, the original stories are available to today’s youngest generation; the Pooh characters and their activities seem fresh and new to little kids, even though they may be a bit tired and outworn to us oldsters.

The only change in the new version is this: there’s a Pooh Corner newcomer. Lottie the Otter fits right in with the other critters.

They’ve done sequels of classics many times. “Peter Pan” was recreated in this way, and of course there was a kerfuffle when a sequel to “Gone With the Wind” was published.

What’s your opinion? Should they have left the “Hundred-Acre Wood” alone, or is it a good idea to come up with a new, well-done version of the stories?
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