“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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Duskdreaming

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I got back from the homeland (France) last night.

There is a beach near Biarritz called Ilbarritz, with a weird mansion up a hill, dominating the cove. It was built by an extravagant Baron in the 19th century to host one of the biggest organs ever made. The house got several lives through the decades (WW1 hospital, WW2 Nazi HQ). It is now abandoned and violently fascinates me for that reason. I am obsessed with empty buildings. I find all the beauty of the world in them: they are like a playground of possibilities impregnated with the ghosts of the past.

The other night, my aunt and uncle were holding hands on that beach in front of the sunset. I was sitting on a bench with them, happily witnessing their demonstrating each other affection. I love people’s love. But I was looking up in the other direction, towards the castle. I fantasised my own version of a romantic evening. I was ‘duskdreaming’ that I was running up the hill with a sexy/creative/bad ass girl and we were breaking into the building to sneak around, contemplate old stuff and then shoot an experimental video or take pictures or keep any kind of arty trace. In the end we would have ideally f***ed each other with sea view, running the risk of being caught.

That’s the kind of life I want.

Any candidates, just inbox me with your adventurer résumé.

For a change, picture isn’t mine. It was taken from Ilbarritz website

Migration Stories

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On Thursday night after work, I took a cab from Newton, Massachusetts to Wellesley, Massachusetts on a peculiar journey to the past.

I got on the yellow taxi that picked me up from the office and it already felt like a travel in time. The old driver looked up the address I gave him on a PAPER BOOK with an index of all the streets of the city. I had a vintage shock. I had to pay by credit card and he pulled out an old manual machine that could have been exposed in a museum. Fabulous.

I got dropped off at number 69 in the middle of a nowhere suburb and rang the bell to meet people I had never seen in my life. βκ and his wife μκ opened the door and welcomed me as a dear old friend.

They are an old couple in their 80s. βκ was born in Freiburg, Germany. My grandfather spent a summer with his family in Freiburg in 1938 as part of a cultural exchange, a few months after the Anschluß (the annexation of Austria by Hitler.) My grandfather witnessed the rise of nazism and the mandatory enrollment of all the young people in the Hitlerian Youths. βκ was 6 at the time. He was the youngest of 7 children. His 3 brothers were killed during the war. After the capitulation of Germany, the country was left in total chaos and there were no perspectives of future. All the civilians were left with the profound fear that something would soon break out again, so all who had a chance to migrate left the country.

βκ had an Uncle of America who had migrated in the 20s and sponsored the rest of the family to move to the New World. βκ was the last one to make the trip, in January 1950, reuniting with his parents and 3 sisters. His wife was born in New York from German parents, but she gave up speaking German as a kid because she was bullied in school due to the WW2 events. It was shameful to be German at this period.

My grandfather, who is a loyal friend and pen pal beyond understanding, has remained in touch with βκ and his family for 76 years, but they never saw each other again.

I paid a visit to these lovely people as a tribute to this life-time friendship and to carry on with it, now that my 92 year-old grandfather will probably never make it to the US.

We exchanged for hours about the past, the present and the future of Europe and the US. They told me how privileged they were to have been a part of the economical blossom of the 50s, and what a golden era it was.

I LOVE migration stories. I always bombard my American friends with questions to know about their ethnic background (the mix of influences running in their blood fascinates me) and to know in what circumstances their ancestors decided to embrace a new life. I am not sure where my curiosity comes from. Maybe because I am feeling exactly there right now, as the kids of the 19th century jumping on a boat to America simply in search of something better. Not that there is a potato famine, a dictatorship or religious pogroms where I live, and I am well aware of that. But it may be the case again. Everyone in Europe is feeling the ghosts of the 30s rising back from their graves.

Why does Human Kind run in a circle?

I will always be optimistic for the future though, because I am surrounded with kick-ass people.