“Je suis Charlie”: A reflection on my Frenchness

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I never imagined commenting a hot topical issue on my blog, but the recent events in France are so huge that my mind can’t really focus on anything else right now.

OK. To give you some insight before tackling the Charlie subject, I should explain that I’ve had an ongoing conflictual relationship with France, my homeland. Starting with the basics: where in France do I actually come from? I never know how to summarise it when people ask me (at least once a day). On my mum’s side, they are from Touraine and Franche-Comté, although my mother’s mother was born in Germany, which she was ashamed of during the war. On my dad’s side, they have all been Savoyards for generations. All my relatives are still there but I don’t know the region at all. I was born in the suburb of Paris but I was transplanted to Lozère when I turned 6. Lozère is the least populated French department. I describe it to Americans like the “Midwest of France”. Everyone there is more or less cousins. I was tagged “Parisian” after my first day at school because of my accent. I did all my school there and hated most of it. I haven’t been in 7 years.

I moved to Québec when I was 18 and 2 weeks, and didn’t see the home land for 2 years. This is where I became an adult. Québec shaped my mentality, my open mind, and my critical mind too. The French stubbornness and self-absorption hit me then.

I spent only 3 years of my grown up life in France, so my feeling of belonging got eroded with time. When I return, I don’t really identify. I don’t fit. I am feeling criticised all the time. French always have something to say, and more than often it is unpleasant. France is the home of a bunch of people I love to pieces, and my favorite thing on earth is reading the newspapers at a Parisian café terrace. But beyond that, I couldn’t picture blossoming in my life there, especially after the anti-gay marriage campaign of 2013 which took hundred of thousands of people on the street (including my own mother :)). Back then, I remember this huge sign in one of the demonstrations stating “France needs children, not homosexuals”, and I felt that my place of birth was hating me. It was violent. Something clearly clicked in my head, I understood I would never live there again because if I’m ever going to have kids, I wouldn’t want them to be second-class citizens.

So in the recent years, I’ve grown to feel “francophone” more than French, because I have mixed feelings for my mother country but I still adore my mother tongue.

Wednesday, the 7th of January – the day of the shooting at Charlie Hebdo – I was working from home. One of my French co-workers reached me on Skype: “Have you seen what is going on in Paris? – No, what?” She sent me a link to LeMonde.fr. I switched on France Inter right away and wasn’t able to get much work done for the rest of the day.

I don’t know what time it was when the journalist said on the French radio : “Charb et Cabu seraient morts.” (“Charb and Cabu are reportedly dead.”) Wave of shock. I was surprised at my own shock, because I wasn’t a regular reader of Charlie, but I knew these guys, of course I knew these guys. I knew their post-May 1968 hippyish school teacher looks, their drawing style, their left-wing insolent speech. I wasn’t a regular reader of Charlie but I loved knowing that they were there and existed. They were a huge symbol of the power to tell the authorities and institutions to fuck off, and it was refreshing to know there was this little agitated force somewhere, even though we could find it sometimes questionable or tasteless. It is just the fact that something like that existed that was so good and comforting and unique to our Frenchness.

My flatmate, who is also French and working from home, waited for me and we went together to the gathering at Trafalgar Square that evening. We didn’t even question it. Of course we wanted to be all together, with all the French of London whom I usually avoid like plague. On the way out, we ran into our British flatmate who didn’t quite get our urge to go. We tried to explain him that some kind of 9/11 of press freedom had just happened – before the first drawings showing the twin towers shaped as pencils had even been published. He didn’t understand, but we had to run.

At Trafalgar Square, at the foot of the National Gallery, it was solemn and silent. No one was speaking. In the Evening Standard that night, they were referring to Charb as “Mr Charbonnier”. Oh my God I thought, “Mister Charbonnier”! They didn’t seize the character. He probably would have hated that much reverence.

On the social networks, the “Je suis Charlie” response went viral, like an international spontaneous solidarity momentum. It had been a while that French people hadn’t really stuck together. Some critics soon arose from the unanimity of it. I told an American who was saying that he couldn’t personally relate to Charlie Hebdo: It’s absolutely normal that you wouldn’t relate to Charlie yourself, because you are not French. What people are trying to say with “Je suis Charlie” is that the core of the nation was touched: our right to be outspoken, disrespectful and irreverent. The basics of Frenchness.”

I believe it is hard to understand for foreigners how much the soul of France was touched, and how representative of a certain French spirit Charlie Hebdo was. The more I was trying to explain that to the people from diverse countries I hang out with, the more it reminded me what I love of my own culture. It reminded me how French I am after all, whether I like it or not. France shaped my critical mind and outspokenness way before any other culture did. I wouldn’t have been shaken to the core by the Charlie events if I wasn’t relating to my culture.

I remembered the “attitude adjustment” I had at work before Christmas, when my manager criticised my “negative attitude” and my way of complaining and communicating about things. I asked him for specific examples. He said it was my overall behaviour, my way of being expressive about things. And probably my way of being irreverent too,  because I always make jokes about the fact that he sweats tons even in the winter. I closed this sterile conversation by saying: “Well, I am French. That’s self-explanatory.” 

So yeah. I am super aching for France right now. French people – including myself – can be a bunch of loud, narrow-minded, ignorant and overcritical assholes, always complaining and never happy with anything. We are irreverent and indisciplined. It can be unbearable, but it can be awesome too. My grandfather, who knows his stuff about history – he worked with the FFI during WW2, he was in charge of collecting the identity of the dead German soldiers searching their body – says that the French won the war because of their indiscipline, and that in Occupation time, it was their big strength.

France has historically generated numerous ideals. We have a vision and high standards on what life should be. Of course, we tripped in the carpet a couple of times in the last centuries and applied our theoretical humanism more or less successfully. But France still has an ideal of some kind, I believe. Millions of people are marching for peace and solidarity this week end, and although a handful of people desperate to think differently say that there is manipulation behind it and that Charlie was racist, homophobic and questionable, people are nevertheless fierce to defend the press freedom and the multiculturalist society.

After the multiple waves of shock of the last 3 days, I paradoxically start getting reconciled with my own Frenchness.

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On The Road

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I went from Québec City to Montréal to New York by bus in the course of a day.

Before I realised, I was facing the giant “United States of America” sign at the border. I remember seeing this sign for the first time a couple of years ago on the same journey. Back then, I was travelling on an overnight bus and I suddenly woke up in the dark. The colossal sign was standing above me like a huge monster. UNITED STATES OF AMERICA. The mythical letters were shining under the moonlight and captivated my imagination, between dream and nightmare.

As soon as you pass the border, it feels different. Canada and the US are neighbours but so distinct.

At sunset, we stopped in a random petrol station, which is the quintessence of the deep America road trip culture. I have had a fascination for American gas stations since my teenage and “Thelma & Louise”. I never thought back then that I would hit the American road so much.

Seating behind me on the bus, there was a young guy crying. I could hear him sob and I was checking his reflection in the window. I felt like showing him some compassion. But I finally didn’t.

I arrived at Port Authority Station in Manhattan at 1.30 am. I walked out and was brutally projected in the New York electricity again, right at the heart of Times Square. The neons were so bright that it took me a second to remember if it was night or day. These were my last instants in Manhattan. But I had no time for nostalgia, farewells or endless considerations, because I had only a few hours ahead before catching the plane.

Trains were disrupted so my middle of the night journey back to Brooklyn was chaotic. It took me 2 trains, a shuttle and a cab to finally reach the house 2 hours later. α and α² were there, awake. It was hard to hierarchise my actions because I had 4 hours to do everything : fill them in about my Québec pilgrim and my confused emotions, pack all my shit, hear their updates about the flatmate hunting situation, and potentially sleep. 

I managed to close my suitcase out of miracle (how do I do it every time? How can so many shoes fit in one bag? That’s my biggest talent : closing the zipper.)

α² went to bed and hugged me good bye. He said: “See you soon anyway. You belong here.” It touched me to the core because then, it means that my sense of belonging there is not only in my head. It is a scientific fact. I didn’t show I was moved though and simply replied : “I know. So, worst case scenario, you marry me, right?”

I went to bed next to α at 4am, a cab picked me up 3 hours later. I haven’t counted how many hours of sleep behind I am because of New York.

The taxi driver asked me where I was from. I said: “I am French, but my life goal is to move here.” He said that he would marry me. See! Even taxi drivers are on my side.

It didn’t feel like I was leaving anyway. It is just a temporary formality. My life will be on hold till I live in my city for good.

I almost lost my flight because I was waiting at the wrong gate. 15 minutes before departure, an announcement said: “Mr X, Y, Z and… Miss Σ (my first name) are asked to go immediately to gate 11.” Hahaha. Not that I didn’t try everything to stay.

At 10.45am, I finally took off to Toronto for the ultimate stage of my North American tour.

Québec City : 10 Years After

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I first went to Québec City in July 2001 for a modern dance summer school. I was meant to stay for a month. My return ticket was booked and my bag was packed with summer clothes. I stayed for 3 years – 2 of them without seeing France at all. I slightly rearranged my original plans to go study at University in Lyon. After a few weeks in Québec, I called France and said: “That’s it, I’m staying.” I was 18 and crazily willing to embrace life. Now I am 30 and still being faithful to my posh gypsy life style. I embrace life in an even crazier way because I am financially stable and I don’t care anymore about what people think of me. I did all along my 20s. That’s enough. (Now I reply : “Fuck you. I rock the world.”) (I am very close to get “Fuck you” tattooed on my skin on a teenagy spot. Just like that.)

Back then in 2001, I randomly enrolled for a modern dance professional program without knowing too much what kind of trouble I was getting myself into. I loved it and hated it so much from one day to the other that I don’t think I’ll ever experience a similar level of thermic amplitude in my day to day routine whatever else I do in life.

Dance is both physically and mentally the most demanding discipline, because it requires all your body AND all your emotions. There is not much left to yourself. Passion for dance can resemble a malediction. I remember going through phases when I was crying everyday, not only out of sorrow or doubts – because questioning yourself rapidly becomes your daily companionship and you don’t notice it anymore. It was purely chemical, like the effect of adrenaline constantly rushing in my veins combined with nervous exhaustion.

I also remember that there has been no other period of my life when I was so strongly driven to get up every morning of my life with the certitude that my day ahead was super important not only for myself, but for the world’s karma. Dancers indisputably make the world a better place, because society misunderstands them and always implies that they are useless.  But they are stubborn enough to keep fighting this secret battle towards some kind of artistic and physical achievement. Dancers are my favourite heroes.

So every morning of my life, I was running to get settled at the ballet bar with the intimate conviction that I was at the heart of my own action, that I was touching the core of the true nature of my existence. I almost never found this exact same feeling again on a day to day basis, although I reshape my routine every couple of years. Just inhabiting your life and your body to the fullest, I suppose. I can confirm that I am way happier and more balanced today though. I couldn’t deal with this perpetual dissatisfaction of myself. I believe everything is at the right place.

On my 3 year journey to artistic introspection and self-discovery, through all the ups and downs, all the enthusiasm and passion followed by cruel disappointments were along with me 8 partners in crime. We were 9 strong-minded girls graduating together after 3 intensive years of bounding. We didn’t only dance together, we became adults together. And we wiped each other’s tears in a couple of occasions. But there was also tons of laughter, because dancing can be hilarious and we had a few nutcase teachers*. Most teachers had trouble with us, because they struggled coping with our strong collective energy. We were bound in a way that people exterior to our group couldn’t quite break into it.

We put our own show together over the last year, from fundraising (selling hot dogs or dates with random guys in a bar) (no kidding. I was sold $100 to a farmer for a date, to pay for our dance trip to NYC**) to conceiving the costumes whilst training and performing the choreographies.

I moved back to Europe shortly after our last ever show together, and we vowed to reunite every 5 years to keep posted on each other’s life. We’ve been successfully doing it. First reunion was in 2009. As the only foreign, I hadn’t seen anyone in 5 years and I was welcomed again like an exotic bird. Even some of the girls who didn’t finish the program showed up. That’s how hot we are.

Second reunion was last Friday. The 10 year anniversary of our graduation: 2004-2014. No one was missing! I took advantage of my adventures in NYC to pay those guys a visit. Our cult ballet teacher, λβ, gave us a class, reiterating as a motto to our old bodies : “The boundary between pride and stupidity is very thin.” Our cult percussionist, ΣH, was playing live music. It felt so natural to dance back together holding the same ballet bar that there was a time warp twist to it.

We had an endless dinner as it took 4 good hours to go around the table and collect everyone’s updates, what our respective lives are like now. Our 3 male waiters really took our group in affection, because every time they were entering our private room they were catching bribes of one or the other’s adventures and péripéties. At some point they even pulled themselves a chair to sit down at our table and listen to the end of a story. We were the last customers in the restaurant, the staff was desperate to go home but they still told us at the end of the night that we were a very inspirational group of friends and that all girls should stick together like we do! Oh yes!

We still had so much to catch up that we piteously ended up at the MacDonald’s drinking gross tea. Who cares, I would have eaten a burger that night just to enjoy more of the company. μμ, who turned 30 at midnight, had to spend the first couple of hours of her 30s at MacDonald’s, but with the hell of ladies around her to compensate.

At the last reunion 5 years ago, there was only 1 child for the whole group, now there are 9. And 3 pregnant women around the table. I am one of the 3 childless. I pondered and decided that I am fine with it. I had so many epic international house movings, horror break up and raising from the grave stories to tell that I effortlessly filled in the time I was allowed.

It was such a great day! It felt like a huge love puff. I needed it. My relationships with my female friends have sometimes been problematic, but these girls remain.

After 2009 reunion, I remember that I was feeling uncomfortably different, “why-don’t-I-have-a-house-and-a-boyfriend” type. I actually found the answer to “why don’t I have a boyfriend” that summer, and I believe our reunion rushed my urge to come out as a lesbian (including to my mum).

This time, just like every other girl of the group, I am feeling better with myself, more on track and in sync with my own rhythm. I may have children in this life or I may not. I am comfortable with both ends.

I will anyway keep creating my own type of life fertility.

*This is a broad topic that should be subject to an independent post

**This was very lucrative but really got us in trouble with the board of our school. Don’t sell people to make fast cash!!

Montréal Amazing Chicks

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I arrived in Montréal on a Monday morning at 7.20, after a night on the Greyhound bus from the Big Apple.

I walked a few steps in the central bus station and all of a sudden, after letting go of New York and its restless excitement, I felt unable to move or even stand. I almost collapsed and slept for a couple of hours on a public bench like a homeless. I was opening my eyes once in a while and I could feel the rhythm of people’s feet, their coming and going, sensing the different heartbeat of the city. Most of them were rushing to start their week of work, while I was starting my vacation in the most peculiar manner.

After my power nap, I went to the bathroom of the station to try to look like something. Next to me at the sink, washing her hands, was a girl that I met 13 years ago when I had just moved to Québec City. I recognised her right away, although our encounter was brief at the time. I even remembered her name. I am psycho with names and faces. That’s how I get to randomly come across so many people I know throughout the world. It is only that I have a borderline paranormal memory for faces. She didn’t recognise me, and I didn’t try to talk to her. I just thought that my Québec time had kicked off and that I had received a warm welcome sign from the francophone metropolis.

At 11, my dear old friend μπ picked me up from the subway on the south bank and greeted me with a warm: “ça c’est de la pelure de clown!” (“what a clown coat!”) at the sight of my rainbow fur coat. It sounds way funnier in the original version though. Canadian French doesn’t translate. 

μπ is one of my most spectacular and bubbly friends. She should be featured in the Quebecer version of “Sex & The City” because she has the best boy stories ever. She often puts herself in improbable love situations, which she feels sorry for, but as we catch up every 2 years at the best, she always has a shit ton of funky stories to tell me. She is very theatrical so it is like going to a stand up comedy show you’ve been looking forward to. As I am not the last one for good stories either, we had to drink an equally shit ton of Amaretto Sours to catch up about our mutual drama since 2012. The day after, we literally spent all day in watching the last winter snow flakes fall lazily, getting food delivered and drinking booze. We also pronounced a magic formula that her fortune-teller gave her in order to get what we want from life. We had to write it down on a paper, repeat it 3 times and burn it from the top left corner. She asked to be happily coupled, I asked to be working in New York in this outstanding job I applied for. Oh my God! This thing is so going to work. 

We went for drinks and poutine with μC and her girlfriend, a power couple who inspired the shit out of me. μC is a schoolteacher/comedian/stand up comedy girl who recently came out to her dad on stage. She used to date a French Femen activist but she paid her flight back to France just to get rid of her. She is now happy with a super cute girl who is fighting cancer and has the intention to blog about it to share her experience. Go Girls! I think my biggest assets in life are none of my relative qualities, but are the people I know. 

On Wednesday, I brunched with another amazing woman, CC. We met in 2001 when we were both living with nuns in a convent of Québec City (no kidding. I lived with the nuns for 2 years in a Catholic residence. I got my first lez experience between those walls. Wonderful memories.) CC is a bisexual writer, traveler, artist, questioning human being who gets inspired by queer women artists and eventually sees herself in some kind of love/creative relationship with a girl. I went with her to the job centre where she had an appointment because she wants to become a self-employed digital story-telling workshops giver. She told me that her sister is now her brother cause he is transitioning from female to male and she actively supports him. I was super interested by his story, because I hang out so much with queers and creatures but strangely enough, I am not close with any trans people, which is a big miss.

CC came with a surprise for me. At the time when we were living with the nuns, I was studying contemporary dance and she was studying fine arts in a building called La Fabrique – a former corset factory. She once dragged me to a fine arts students party and I was amazed by the freedom and relax style of the people, coming from a world where we were told off if we didn’t wear pink tights and uptight hairstyles. Everyone was wearing Birkenstock shoes with winter socks inside them. CC introduced me to a very tall girl called V., who was passably drunk. Tall girl looked at me from up there and said: “Good eveninglittle thing!” Before I understood anything, she was petting my hair and gave me a kiss on the top of my head. I was stunned for a second and then cracked up and later on told this anecdote to everyone as a very cult moment of my life. Well, V. came over to the café the other day, and it was the first time we met again after our unforgettable introduction. She hadn’t changed much. She told me: “I think of you often.” I replied: “Same here. You pop up in my head very unexpectedly.” What an incongruous reunion.

All those beautiful and fabulous Montréal ladies made me laugh and made my heart swing with joy, curiosity, excitement, admiration. I love them all dearly.

By the way. The skull shirt from my blog cover picture died tonight. It is sitting lifeless in my bin. It followed a lot of my adventures since 2007 and had an AWESOME life. Like me.