Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Dark November

The first sign for me that something was wrong came on Saturday morning, when shortly after getting up, I checked my phone in the living room and discovered vague, worried e-mails from my family and friends in the US. I shouted out and woke my husband before I even knew: "Something's happened in Paris."  He loaded Le Monde, and as he read the details out loud, I listened in shock.

Then my daughter asked, "Mommy, why are you crying?"  

I wanted right then to send the fighter jets; the bombs were already dropping in my head, destroying them, whoever they were.  How dare they... it was my city and my country... and my uncharacteristic rage. I took a deep breath and at the same time gave the official parental narrative with so little trace of the anger in my voice I surprised myself: 

"Bad people in Paris last night... they did terrible things... a lot of people died."

I think my daughter might have given me a hug then, the four-going-on-five-years-old remedy for all that is wrong with the world. I don't remember when and how we told my eight-year-old son, or if we simply answered his questions as they came. If they both noticed that their parents seemed absent the rest of the morning, constantly checking their telephones and talking over their heads, they didn't say anything about it.  I was short-tempered, simultaneously light-headed with adrenaline and numbed by an anxious weight in my stomach.  At the same time, we were in Versailles and the events seemed very, very far away.  Acquaintances from high school were expressing relief on Facebook that I'd marked myself as "safe," and it almost made me laugh: was it at all likely that I would be out on a Friday night, in Paris, at a rock concert or a sidewalk cafe? As it happened, I'd gone to bed at 9:30 after a long week, right after tucking in the kids. Grim as the news was, in a city the size of Paris, what were the chances?

My daughter and I went into town in Versailles on Saturday afternoon and it felt like an act of defiance.  The chateau and park were closed, but the local shops were open but for a few exceptions.  The street market on the main commercial intersection was set up, though police cars were parked at each corner.  I made frivolous purchases I wouldn't have otherwise just to prove something, I think.  I bought a garish pink skirt and a silver-striped top for my daughter for the holidays. We chose invitations for her upcoming birthday party.  She clutched the shopping bag proudly and held my hand as we walked together.  Night was falling as we reached home.

November took me by surprise this year, for the weather has been mild and even unseasonably warm.  The leaves and rain are falling on schedule, but once I'm outside I shed woolen scarves and coats and wonder what to expect next.  Meanwhile, my daughter in her last year of nursery school is learning the reassuring logic of the seasons: with spring comes flowers, with summer the sun, with fall the brightly-colored leaves, and with winter the cold; then we begin again.  My son, with his eight-year-old passion for geography, savantly extends the logic.

"Maman, which one is the tropic of capricorn and which one is the tropic of cancer?" he recently asked, "I always forget."  

Thus I found myself holding his globe at a tilt one evening, orbiting around him as he stood in the center of his room in his pajamas. "And here the sun is as far away from us as it will get during the whole year. And then we go back again." I paused at the winter solstice, and he smiled because he understood. 

The rumors now are telling us things will get worse before they get better. As after September 11 in the US, the press -- or perhaps just our reading of the press -- is fueling a certain hysteria, and we hold our collective breath and wait for something even more terrible to happen. I'm afraid of a lot of things, many of them irrational, but I'm not particularly afraid of being the target of a terrorist attack. I am afraid of the darkness that is falling.  I'm afraid of decisions by those in power made in haste or made too late, of unintended consequences, of the simple reflexes of fear and hatred, of more human beings becoming trapped in the false logic of extremes. 

My children are not particularly concerned, though the adults around them look serious and scared.  For them, the fear is abstract and illogical, like so much else in the world of big people, not concrete like the changing seasons, where spring always follows winter just like we were taught.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Burgers and white wine

J'adore votre accent.

I get it all the time.  I can't help but cringe, though I try not to do so openly.  Yes, I'm obviously American and no, after twelve years in France it is pretty clear my accent is not going away.  I think the American accent in French is grating and inelegant, and I can hardly stand hearing my own voice on my voice mail recording.  I've been told my accent is less American more generic English-speaking, and that makes feel a bit better, since to my ear a pure American accent in French sounds particularly flat, nasal, and loud.  But my u can be a little bit ou, I have a terrible time distinguishing an e from an é and an é from an è, and I'm still not entirely sure what I do wrong with r.  Beyond the phonetics, there's the pace and the flow: though I speak fluently, I bounce over words which should be even, draw out syllables which should be clipped, and generally speak the way a Citroën 2CV drives through a freshly plowed field: neither smooth nor direct, but I get there.  This though I'm proud to speak with true fluency, both linguistic and cultural.  I can make jokes, and savant allusions to Molière and Les tontons flingueurs and actually get laughs.

When I'm told my accent is adorable, I usually wrinkle my nose and reply, "That's kind, but I prefer the French accent in English."  At which point the other person invariably wrinkles their nose and says, "Ah non." They usually add, "De toute façon, the French are terrible at English."

"Mais non, mais non," I protest. I come from a country where, in my generation at least, the vast majority never learned a foreign language in any durable fashion.  We all took French, Spanish, or less commonly Japanese or German starting in middle school.  Many of us got straight As, as I did.  Most of us dropped the language (in my case, Spanish) as quickly as our language requirement in college was met and we never seriously looked back.  Sure, I've had vague regrets about it every since: if I'd had half the guts in college that I have now, I would have studied abroad in Spain.  But the choice to give up never impacted me much.

In much of the rest of the world and certainly all of Europe, the linguistic stakes are much higher.  Being comfortable in English is often the difference between a promotion or professional stagnation, or the deciding factor in landing a job in the first place.  I observe this to be as true in the service sector as it is in the professional sector. Rare is the job nowadays, at least in Paris and other major cities, where you never greet a foreign tourist or address an international colleague in English.

The irony is that while the French are forgiving and indulgent with foreigners like me who muddle through their language with odd accents and vocabulary errors, they are ruthless critics of their own ability in English.  I've always assumed that this was because the French method of teaching English valued perfection over real-life proficiency.  Many French people I've met are just like my boss, who is timid and almost paralyzed when he speaks English despite being passably good at it.

I've recently been contacted by a couple of bosses in other groups at my company for a potential internal transfer.  I'm at a point in my career where I'm thinking toward the future, open to making a change, and making this fact known.  Yet neither of the contacts were for positions which were a natural fit for me, and I was a confused at first.

"They just want you because you speak English," was my boss' unflattering assessment. 

Though I knew that he was simplifying things -- and trying to convince me to stay put, somewhat out of self-interest I assume, since he knows I'm good at what I do -- I had to admit he wasn't entirely wrong.  That's just the way the world works now.

"...and then," he went on, "The French are so poor at English that even in our commercials we can't get it right.  Think of Renault and their slogan, 'La French Touch.' Badly pronounced, ridiculous!  We could make an effort..."

"It doesn't bother me."  I insisted.

That's when I realized something: not only did it not bother me, it made me cheer.

For better or for worse, English is the standard of international communication and isn't going away.  We have no choice, and it can be lived as a form of submission. I try not to let my bilingualism lead to laziness and imagined superiority: I try not to place English words in my French and assume everyone can and should understand.  What counts, I realized, is owning both languages wholly as my own.

"What if it were yours?" I asked my boss.  "What if English, now that it is the language of international communication, no longer belongs to just the English and the Americans, but to everyone?  What if you owned it, too?"

By owning it, you see, there is no longer a native-speaker ideal to which the rest of the world cannot aspire, but a rich palette of experiences though a shared global vocabulary. No accent is the "right" accent, and English is a tool for everyone, a catalyst for exchange.  I thought it was a brilliant idea.  My boss apparently didn't understand what I was saying (despite my limpidly expressed thoughts in his native language. Go figure).  

Later that day, I told the story to my husband, and he did understand.  As we walked to a restaurant for dinner on the other side of town, we passed a neighborhood bistro which is typically French in all respects except for its burger menu.  It was a warm summer evening and the sidewalk tables were full.  We passed an older couple just digging into their burgers, dismantling them delicately in the French manner, with a knife and a fork in each hand.  

"Look," I whispered as we passed.  "They're eating burgers, with utensils!  And they've each got a glass of white wine.  I love it.  That's what I meant... with English.  Eat the burger... but on your own terms." 

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Je suis

One of the only people I know who went to the marche républicaine is a devout Muslim immigrant from Morocco. In my frank and nosy American fashion, I had been asking around, trying to find out who had gone among my friends and colleagues and hear their experience of what I'd missed.  He hadn't stayed long, this friend told me; there were too many people, he didn't feel comfortable.  And, he added significantly, some people were carrying the caricatures of Mohammed.  It wasn't the place for him, he decided, so he went back home.

Another friend, a Muslim of Moroccan origin who grew up in France, shrugged when I asked him if he'd gone. He supported freedom of speech and was upset about the attack, but he wasn't sure he would be wanted at the march or even safe.

"No matter now long I live here, I'll never be considered French," this second friend had told me before, very matter-of-factly. "When I go to Morocco, I'm not considered Moroccan, either."  He didn't feel he belonged anywhere. But that was just the way it was, and with his engineering diploma and abilities (he is hands-down the best software developer I've met in my career), he could go anywhere, so he left first for Dublin, then Barcelona, learned to speak English and Spanish fluently, and picked up some Catalan.  It was only reluctantly that he came back to France, and he still isn't sure he will stay forever.  He has options, he explained, but the kids in the projects, with no education and no prospects, who are denied a national identity as well... though no justification, is it surprising a tiny minority turn to violence?

For my part, I feel that "Je suis Charlie" is awkwardly chosen.  Flashed across television screens, reprinted on billboards, and taped to shop windows, it is everywhere right now in France.  I am certain that the sentiment behind it of respect and solidarity is true and laudable. Yet instead of making a unified statement of what we believe, it calls for us to make a unified statement of who we are.

What if who you are has already been decided for you?

"Portraits from the March: 'French before being Muslim or Jewish'" was the title of an article which appeared in Le Monde on January 12.  Why the hierarchy of identity? wondered the American side of me, though I know full well that the French notion of laïcité requires religion to be personal, private, and secondary. I thought those interviewed for the story were brave, both for showing up at the march and for telling their story.

"Up until now, I'd never been insulted," said Hanane-Nina Kaji, a librarian who attended the march wearing a headscarf.  "Now, it's almost as if I'm a considered a terrorist! I've heard 'You, you are all the same,' or 'Go home!' But home for me, that's here...'"

I won't pretend I was comfortable when my friend admitted he had turned around at the march and gone home. We both agree on the essential: that acts of terrorism and violence are unequivocally unacceptable. But I would have wished that he'd come to the same conclusions that I had: that since Charlie Hebdo had used the same crude humor against Catholics and Jews, against the far-right Front National party as well as mainstream politicians, caricaturing Mohammed was fair game. That we should allow symbols to be questioned and even ridiculed because it is simply too dangerous when we do not. Instead, he disagreed with me and I learned just how deeply he had been hurt by the caricatures.  France, according to him, is afraid of Islam without attempting to understand it.  While I talked of freedom of speech, he wondered where were the voices in the press who were willing to explain his faith and his culture. We weren't talking about exactly the same thing, but I still knew I should listen.

Some of the signs carried in the march started with "Je suis Charlie," and then continued, with one or usually several of the following: I am Muslim. I am Jewish. I am a cop. I am French.

I'm reassured by this that we've got half the conversation right.

So much for me, now, I'd like us all to say. "Et toi?"

Monday, January 12, 2015

Charlie and Me

I've never read Charlie Hebdo. I was aware that it existed, but it purveyed a brand of Franco-français off-color political humor that just wasn't my thing.  To tell the truth, I wasn't sure that I was acculturated enough to really "get" it, even after a decade of life in France: my politically correct American prudishness has worn off some, but not that much, quand même. And it feels so uncomfortable to not be in on the joke.

Not that Charlie Hebdo's humor was so hard to understand, as I see now that I'm making up for lost time, along with much of the western world, through the tamer cartoons which are currently being republished throughout the media. I heard it suggested this week that that was perhaps part of what led to the tragedy: in our modern, connected world, the drawings were easily transmitted; since they were visual, they needed no translation to generate hate.

When I heard about the attack in Paris, I was shocked, but not entirely surprised.  I remembered when Charlie Hebdo republished the controversial drawings of Mohammed back in 2006, and also when it was the victim of a firebomb attack in 2011.  I left work on Wednesday at the normal time, shaken, but not much more.  The victims named cited in the news meant nothing to me. Cabu? Charb?  My husband had heard of them all, of course, and on the television Wednesday night began the testimonies of the grieving French intelligentsia. The people who knew the journalists and artists of Charlie Hebdo shed personal tears over the friends they'd lost. Paris is a small place. Everyone who is anyone here knows each other.

That's when it hit me, the sadness but also the indignation. Free speech is an American value.  Free speech is a French value. Free speech is the core value of the democratic world.  This is normal enough: free speech is an Enlightenment value, and if Voltaire were alive today, he'd probably be writing for Charlie Hebdo.  But there's something specific about the French expression of this, an urge to push it to an extreme, sometimes to prove a point and sometimes simply to prove that it can be done.  The unalienable right to unruly dissension.  It is considered healthier to loudly offend than to say nothing at all.  If you've ever engaged a Frenchman in an argument, you know what I mean: arms are waved, your feelings aren't spared; you're almost certainly victim of crude and often undeserved exaggeration, but it's deployed in part to keep you honest.  In French public dialog, the fringe provocateurs of the Charlie Hebdo throw the punches others may pull, and so what if many are below the belt: it's still part of a long and important tradition.  And they're having a grand time doing it, knowing they're mocking the decent and the codified and making us laugh against our better judgment.

By evening on Wednesday, Place de la République was already full of anonymous mourners and the first "Je Suis Charlie" icons appeared on my friends' Facebook pages.  It seemed a bit presumptuous to call myself Charlie so soon, since after all, we'd only just met.  And given the peculiar role of Charlie Hebdo in French journalism, part gadfly, part impetuous kid brother, and wholly out to shock, who could say "I am Charlie" and have it make any sense?  Likely few of the well-meaning people and institutions around the world who copied and pasted it in emails and twitter feeds, and surely not the NASDAQ, which flashed a giant "Je Suis Charlie" on their Times Square electronic display.

But I wanted to do something symbolic, though admittedly useless, as the knot of sadness and anger grew in my stomach throughout the day on Thursday. I hesitated, and then chose as my profile picture the cover of Charlie Hebdo published shortly after the firebomb attack: a drawing of a Charlie cartoonist and a Muslim man engaged in a juicy kiss with the title "Love is stronger than hate."

I didn't go to the Unity March on Sunday.  It didn't seem like a good idea with the kids, and to be honest, beyond the desire to be part of something historic, I wasn't entirely sure of the point.  The Unity March wasn't even called a "unity march" in French, but la marche républicaine, an untranslatable "march for values of the French Republic." And now that I've missed it I suppose I'll never know, but I hope it was more about plurality than unity: the many voices from many places which form the Republic, not with one copy-pasted sentence but with the cacophony of dialog.  Tearful, indignant, resigned, mistaken, enlightened, ridiculous, inspired, dignified, distasteful, rambling, concise, confused, brilliant and irreverent, in many languages or a few simple pen strokes, leading us all somehow together in the right direction.