Has it really been two years? Am I the only one who feels as if it happened yesterday – and a lifetime ago?
I got off work a little late yesterday and drove down to the train station to pick up my older daughter, who was not at all mad she got to stay with her German friends a bit longer (for context: I am a single mom of two teens, serving in the military and currently stationed in an astonishingly pretty area of southern Germany).
Looking for that little café nestled behind some buildings that were old when the Mayflower set out across the Atlantic, I absentmindedly returned the occasional perfunctory nods and friendly half-waves of the locals. You see, even though we’re not supposed to wear uniform, or anything that might give us away as members of the US military while frolicking among the natives – they’re not going to be fooled. This close to a US garrison, their “Ami”-radar has been calibrated and fine-tuned for 60+ years. And so when I came to a screeching halt at the quaint little newspaper stand just outside the ‘Bahnhof’, the kind elderly man immediately registered “Ah, one of them” and addressed me in English as if it were the most normal thing in the world. And for him, I suppose, it is.
“Times, Madam? We have London or New York. English magazines, too.”
But I was staring at that French magazine sitting next to something displaying a scantily clad woman and an issue of the “Frankfurter Allgemeine”.
“Oh yes, Charlie. Very funny. If you know French. 4 Euros, Madam.”
Somehow I dug the by now familiar Euro coins out of my pocket and mumbled my way through my still heavily accented German courtesies, before returning to my original mission: locate teenage daughter, forage for food, drive home.
But the magazine, and the avalanche of memories it had set loose, stayed with me.
Déjà vu – I have seen this before
The first time I set foot on European soil, I was a teenager. The Cold War was nearing its end, though none of us knew this at the time. The “Winds of Change” were in the air, but exactly which way they would blow a day, a month, a year from then … we had no clue. Terrorism was on people’s radars – the IRA, the ETA, lots of acronyms, varying causes, varying levels of concern – but it was not the haunting shadow that seems to cast its pall over the globe these days.
I remember an autumn day in London, dad and me riding the subway (sorry, the Underground. Or is it the Tube?) when quite out of the blue our train stopped at an odd looking little platform that to me seemed straight out of a James Bond movie. Or maybe a WWII film – it certainly looked ancient to a “Yankee” teenager. A voice came over the speakers, but in the low buzz of English people expressing their discontent in more or less polite ways, all I understood was that we weren’t going any further.
So we disembarked amidst Londoners who seemed to alternate between vexation and resignation, and befuddled, nervous tourists. True, I noticed dad’s frown, but was too busy absorbing this unexpected adventure to even suspect anything other than some sort of technical issue. I remember marveling at how deep underground we were, trying to count the steps of the big winding stair we had to climb to get back to the surface, trying to figure out where we were once we emerged into daylight. I remember dad’s dismay at the suddenly overcrowded streets, the iconic buses stuffed to the brim, no taxi to be had even if traffic had been moving at more than snail’s pace, and pedestrians everywhere. I remember thinking “All we need is a hot dog stand and some cursing cabbies and it’s rush hour in Manhattan” right until the first casual mention of “Bomb threat. Bloody terrorists.”
Strangely enough, I don’t remember being afraid. If I grabbed dad’s hand a little tighter, it was because my biggest fear at the time was getting separated in the press of people, all of whom seemed to know where they were and where they wanted to go.
I remember this, because I admired the Londoners for their stoicism and acerbic humor. I admired how they dealt with this major disruption – and very real danger, as I slowly came to realize after watching the news that evening – it felt as if their entire city had been wearing a “Keep Calm and Carry On” T-shirt.
I remembered this long after we were back home, safe and sound. Or so we thought.
(Of course to this day my dad blames the IRA for my career choice. I don’t recall wanting to race after the bomb squad that day and peeking over their shoulders; my sole intent after what felt like crossing London on foot was to secure a mountain of fish and chips, followed immediately by scarfing down every scrap of Indian food within 40 miles. But he’s a wise man, and an amazing cook. Therefore I will not contradict him).
Déjà vu – here we are again
The woman who returned to Europe many years later was quite different from that innocent teenager. Not only had the worst terrorist attack in our country’s history taken place in my home state, but this time I was a member of our armed forces. Thanks to my lifelong fascination with chemistry and physics, and particularly the science of “Why does this go boom, but that only bounce around in odd ways?” I had followed a path similar to the one the guys in London had taken so long ago: going towards the thing everyone else gets away from (and should! Seriously. Even if it only goes “squish” in the end. Get away. Don’t try to be a hero, they’re not paying you enough. They’re not paying me enough, either, but I got all the cool toys).
And Europe, for better or worse, was different, too. Perhaps not so much the Germans, stubbornly sticking to their proverbial guns rather than real ones – the descendants of the people who started a World War now seem to have a unilateral and uncompromising distaste for the concept. But Europe as a whole felt more tense than it had living under the Soviet Union’s shadow. It was subtle enough at first – mostly politicians bickering over details. How much hijab is too much? May a minaret be taller than a church tower, and will Swiss cows object to a muezzin’s call? (This is serious, people, do not mess with Confederate cows. India may hold them sacred, Switzerland will fight you over them).
It became more heated when the war in Syria – for a long time only another soundbit on the news, another hopeful Arab Spring turned slaughter – became the breeding ground for yet another terrorist group. This time, with their sights fixed on Europe.
Then came Paris. January 7th 2015
Je suis Charlie
Is it more scary, or less, if you already know the gamut of emotions you will run from the time you first hear the news? If you can almost clinically analyze “Yep, still in disbelief. With early signs of anger. Give it a few more hours for the grief to hit. Fuck this. Hello helplessness, my old friend.”
Is it more scary, or less, if you immediately start running your mental checklist “Who is where, anyone close to this situation, when have I last checked in with x and y, what is the threat level at this location, at that one, …”
There was relief, making its entrance right around the time anger morphed into sorrow, because this time there had been none of mine affected. But that same night I started wondering whether that was true. None of mine?
Agree with Charlie Hebdo’s satire or not, laugh or find it distasteful, France values their freedom of speech no less than we do.
Having been born in Lady Liberty’s own shadow, I could not help but take this one personally. Not just because that beautiful lady is French, not just because I truly, deeply believe in what she stands for. Because those had been my people. Irreverent cartoonists and a somewhat cynical soldier, we might have gotten into some heated arguments had we met in a bar – but at the end of the day we shared our belief in having that argument. In liberté, égalité, fraternité.
I was Charlie.
But Paris was never the same. Even as the French – magnificently irrepressible bastards that they are – suspended their bickering they enjoy so much for a while to stand together, their world was changing.
November 13th 2015
Déjà vu – when does it end?
From #portesouvertes to “Je suis en terrasse“, Paris was defiant. But this time, the leaders could not ignore the calls for something, anything to be done and declared “état d’urgence”. A State of Emergency that was extended again and again, and still could not prevent the attack in Nice.
July 14th, 2016
No two weeks later, the girls and I went to see the horses in the Camargue, stroll through beautiful Marseille, and stuff ourselves with French delicacies far off the beaten tourist paths. We had planned this trip for over a year. We discussed whether it would be a good idea to go. We hated even asking the question “should we?”
As a mother, I was immensely proud of my girls when they went into a quick huddle and then declared like two small Generals Patton: “Toujours l’audace!”Also as a mother, I could not prevent the dark shadow stirring, the one that wanted to protect my young at all cost. The reasonable approach – there is NO place they’ll ever be 100% safe – did not weigh as much as the argument “It is well to defend a life, but should they not have one first?”, and in the end we were safe enough. Safer than we would have been much closer to ‘home’, as Berlin reminded us painfully not a few months later.
Still, it was impossible to not see the large police presence, the soldiers keeping a watchful eye over the milling crowds in the larger cities and near the tourist attractions. It was also difficult to not overhear the locals grumbling about it. One might of course argue that grumbling is the French default state, and if they cease doing it, the midden truly is about to hit the windmill. So we asked. Me in stumbling high school French augmented by the bits and pieces you’re bound to acquire growing up a moose-hop south of the St Lawrence, my girls rather more comprehensively.
I shall not translate the profanities, beautiful and creative as they were (Really? Zig-zag? I had no idea you could do that…). But it boiled down to this: 10 out of 10 French agree that terrorist may go procreate with themselves.
3 out of 10 believe Madame Le Pen is on to something, but considering she’s a politician will surely find ways to screw it up. The police? Yes, good. Let them pull their weight a bit. The soldiers? Bah. Fat lot of good they’re doing just standing around. But they look handsome, non?
4 out of 10 felt that politicians are all idiots but what can you do. What, afraid? Bah. Well, the homegrown extremist bastards are just as worrisome as those coming in, but how do you communicate with people who live in/come to the best country on earth and want no part of it? So they must be idiots as well. You’re not, obviously, since you came here to visit and spend your money. Good for you. The soldiers and police? Would you have come without them making you feel safer? Yes? Very good for you. Have another glass. Tell your friends to come.
2 out of 10 felt that their current politicians are the worst idiots but what can you do. At least they are French idiots, though it is small consolation (yes, the “your idiots are bigger than ours” was implied. Or stated outright). The soldiers? Waste of taxpayer money.
1 out of 10 was either uninterested in sharing, too interested in sharing (I still have that manifesto somewhere), more interested in flirting with lovely American ladies than politics, or too upset about the quality of the fish to bother with silly tourists.
Their world may have changed around them, and they may have adapted (while grousing and squabbling) because that’s how you survive. But for those we talked to, living is still more important than mere survival. As our gruff tour-guide out in the marches of the Camargue put it “The f*ck I’ll let anyone screw my life for me. If I go out tomorrow, it shall be biting and clawing because what I have is too good to give up. You hear, mignonne? No dying before you die.”
It was yesterday. It was a lifetime ago.
What did I take home from this trip, other than a truckload of memories and excellent wine?
If I must raise my children in this age of terrorism, let me do it with courage. Let me be irrepressible. Let me hold on to the things I believe in. Let me always remember that I am not alone.
Je me souviens.
Je suis toujours Charlie.