This post was originally going to be all about how my kids had a stomach virus during the past week, one that made them projectile vomit for days, in unison, all over the living room, the car, the bathroom, the staircase, and just about anywhere else that wasn’t a toilet or bin.
But then the Parisian terrorist attacks happened, leaving 129 innocent people dead and putting my temporary problems into better perspective.
French flags currently dress around half of my Facebook friends’ faces. It’s a small part of the Western world’s outpouring of sympathy for the French tragedy.
Many are predictably politicizing the event. Some are blaming Obama, or saying this wouldn’t have happened if the French were better armed, while others perceive racism in the sympathy itself, pointing out that no one was this upset about the deadly attacks in Beirut. Each of us are trying to make sense of it through the filters of our own world lenses.
I wish human decency weren’t a cause for attack these days… that grieving for someone’s loss didn’t make one vulnerable, just as attending the funeral of a loved one doesn’t lead to open criticism about how you weren’t as upset by every other random death on the planet.
Death is always tragic, but naturally more painful whenever you feel a personal connection to its victims.
I love France, adore the French, and feel awful about what has happened.
My connections go back to early childhood, when my mother was majoring in French and I was surrounded by French people for as long as I can remember. We made many trips to France as I was growing up, and the French have always been close to my heart.
Americans tend to believe many negative French stereotypes: that the French are rude, pretentious, and weak. It’s odd that these beliefs are so widespread, given that most Americans never travel to France and never meet any actual French people.
It’s also odd because the French have long been our closest allies, from helping us win the American Revolution to being part of the Allied powers during the World Wars. Plus, they gave us the Statue of Liberty.
I figure it’s part of our Anglo-Saxon roots, the cultural legacy of the rivalry between England and France that has gone on for centuries. The English called syphilis the “French Pox,” and vulgar kissing became “French kissing,” and condoms were “French letters.” Anything dirty became “French.”
And the French responded in kind, with the “English pox” and “English kissing.” England and France are like a couple of siblings, endlessly playing an “I’m-not-touching-you” game with each, and I don’t want to take sides, loving both the French and British alike.
I think these petty rivalries are forgotten in turbulent times, though. Despite all the squabbling, the British, Americans and French come together when it counts. Like when Nazis invade.
American and French tensions might also come from a few cultural differences… the French have a slightly more formal culture, for example, which can be read as “stuffy” to informal Americans, and they don’t smile as often, which is mistaken for coldness by Americans, who smile by default.
But in my experiences, the French have been very warm people. I’d like to tell you a little story about the French, and why I love them, as a small tribute during these painful times.
In the winter of 2000, my (then) husband and I were a couple of very young and broke American soldiers. We had just gotten married and didn’t have much money for a honeymoon, so we decided to take a military hop into Europe, to explore London and Paris.
In the Army, you could pay about $10 for a box lunch and tag along a military flight to any base in the world. It wasn’t fancy, but it was affordable.
We caught a C130 flight going over to Ramstein, an Air Force Base in Germany. We sat on plastic netting next to a tank that was chained to the cargo hold, with ear plugs in our ears, and were told to use a communal bucket in the corner if we had to use the bathroom.
As I said, this wasn’t fancy.
Still, I was okay with this arrangement until the plane’s door fell off. Yes, the door fell off as they were trying to close it, hitting the asphalt with a loud smack. A couple of guys worked for several minutes to get the loose door back on its tracks as I felt growing anxiety about the integrity of the machine I was squatted inside, the one that was about to carry us over the ocean for thousands of miles.
They got it back on and we made it over the pond (obviously, since I’m able to write this) before taking a train into Paris, where we had the time of our lives for several days as we tried to do whatever we could until our pennies ran out.
We carried everything with us in two Army rucksacks on our backs. We carted them through Notre Dame, the catacombs, Versailles, the Louvre, and the Paris Youth hostel we stayed in. We had no set plans, no hotel arrangements, and certainly no backup plans.
When it came time to travel to Calais and catch the Ferry into England, we miscalculated, ending up in Lille in the middle of the night in an onslaught of rain.
We found out the train station wouldn’t open until the next day and we didn’t have enough money to book a hotel. Stomping through the flooded countryside next to a freeway, my husband unsuccessfully tried to hitchhike.
I remember him sticking a thumb out at a passing single female motorist and her careening by at the speed of light. He was baffled, but I reminded him that he was an over-six-foot-tall man in rags with a black knit watch cap and a beat-up rucksack trying to hitch a ride from a single woman at two in the morning. I wouldn’t have picked him up either.
Defeated, we trudged our way toward the Lille bus stop. Our legs were sopping wet to the thighs, and I was catching pneumonia, though I didn’t realize it at the time.
We passed an old man who asked my husband if he had a light. My husband gave him one, and the French man first thanked him, then noticed our US Army rucksacks.
“Vous etes Americains?” he asked, pointing at our torn backpacks.
“Oui,” I responded.
“Merci,” the old man said before shaking both of our hands. He walked a few steps away before turning around, saluting us both, and wiping a tear from his face.
I’m not always sentimental, but I wanted to burst out crying on the spot.
Rallied by the gesture, my husband and I trudged along further, for a seeming eternity, before finding shelter at a covered bus stop. I pulled out a deck of cards and we planned to keep ourselves awake by playing until morning.
Around three, a young woman walked by and asked me if I had any rolling papers. I told her no, and asked her if any place was open. We spoke back and forth for a while (her in broken English and me in broken French) until I had communicated our situation well enough to give her the gist.
She took us back to her apartment, where she had a few friends over, to get us out of the storm while we waited out the night. She told her friends about us and a French man brought us two hot cups of tea to warm us up.
“Thank you,” I told him, “It’s so cold. We are from California.”
“Oh no, you are American!” he gasped.
“Yes,” I said.
“I thought you were English!” he said, panicking, “You don’t want tea! You want COFFEE. I will make you some!”
No no no, we reassured him. Hot tea was wonderful. We were more than grateful for tea.
We were frankly shocked that anyone would not only bring bedraggled strangers into their home in the middle of the night, but would then scramble to make them as comfortable as possible.
We spent the night having wonderful discussions with three French people about culture, food, and local customs. The hot tea man broke out a nice Italian liquor to share, to introduce us to a local favored variety.
We talked about the proliferation of McDonalds in France, how the French were concerned about losing local culinary traditions. The hot tea Frenchman told us that his daughter recently confessed to eating at a McDonalds.
“Did you enjoy it?” he asked her.
“No daddy, it was awful! I just went there because all of my friends were going.”
It made us laugh because it sounded just like a confession to one’s parents about feeling peer pressure to kiss a boy or smoke a joint. We talked about food traditions and never had the sense that the French were hostile to Americana so much as worried about local traditions dissolving in the age of globalization.
The next morning, they walked us to the train station so we could buy our tickets and move on to Calais.
I’ve had many pleasant encounters with the French, too many to mention here. But I remembered this one in particular when reading about #porteouverte.
Shelter from the storm.