Tag Archives: France

“Have we met?” The highs and lows of happenstance

There is a girl from my university – I do not know her name – who I see absolutely everywhere. In the grocery store in the 16th arrondissement of Paris, at a bar in Bastille, at the gym at Republique. We have no friends in common (that I know of) and we have never actually spoken, yet this random person seems to have an inextricable link to my existence. But why? What is this driving force that has pushed us into the same space at the same time repeatedly? Is it the world telling us we simply must meet and now, or just that little thing we call “happenstance?”

It seems that more and more, I am having these “Wow, small world!” moments. Often, there is no more rhyme or reason for these fateful meetings than there is for Sarah Palin to have ever considered running for US president.

As the global population expands to its breaking point, with a seven billionth person landing on the planet a few weeks ago, I find no fewer connections between people in my life. Perhaps with all the extra humans on earth, we are being pushed ever closer by some cosmic force. Maybe globalization has gotten the last laugh. The more we spread out across the globe – for work, love or the promise of adventure – the more we are connected in miniscule, haphazard ways.

But what does it mean? Or does it mean nothing? As a regular tarot card reader and astrology nut, I find myself placing meaning on situations when it is convenient, or fitting. That girl from university I see everywhere? Must just be random. But the dashing blond man I see everywhere from the Gambetta metro station to the Monoprix at Opera? We simply must be destined to be together.

This is what psychologists refer to as “confirmation bias.” It’s the tendency to search for or interpret new information in a way that confirms our preconceptions, but avoids information and interpretations that might contradict our prior beliefs.

Yet I am not the only one fostering meaning into these ephemeral meetings. I still remember the time I saw an old friend in a shoe store in Paris. We hadn’t seen each other for years and it just so happened, he was leaving for India indefinitely the next day. We stood there staring dumbfounded at each other for five minutes until the storeowner kindly asked me if I was actually going to buy the shoe still stuck on my foot. As my friend and I parted ways that evening, he said, “Don’t you think this means something?” Fully knowing his romantic feelings for me and my platonic ones for him, all I could utter was, “No, not really.”

But even I couldn’t believe that statement. Everything means something. We would not be here, in this place where we’re standing, without all the little experiences before, now, everywhere. Without every moment, person met, job taken or love lost, I would not be everything that I am right now.

Yet, I’m still not convinced. There must be some better, more concrete explanation.

My friend’s father, a religious Jew, would undoubtedly respond to situations like the ones I’ve explained with, “Is it odd, or is it God?” Indeed, a more religious person than I would equate these random experiences with makings of a higher power; of a God who is trying to teach me something with every person met, every connection made. But isn’t that taking the easy way out? Explaining the unexplained by something I can’t tangibly construct doesn’t necessarily help me understand why I seem to be connected to some people more than others, or why those connections can fluctuate between strong (to the point of scary) to non-existent.

A couple of years ago, an ex-boyfriend and I seemed to be banded together like white on rice. However you want to explain it – the planets aligned, it was fate, destiny, whatever – our paths seemed to cross whether we liked it or not. And then one day, the connection broke like a flimsy thread. Without warning, that link was gone, dead, never to be revived again. Maybe there’s no reason for any of this, maybe I’ve looked far too long and hard into the matter. Or maybe the I Ching can explain.

The ancient Chinese texts use a complex set of 64 hexagrams that show how energy flows throughout a situation, and its answers are extremely sensitive to the nuances of human interaction. For many, an I Ching reading can provide guidance on how to proceed during difficult times or even a glimpse into the future. By the tossing of three coins, an I Ching prophecy could explain the probability of why people cross paths at certain moments in life.

Then there is the theory of “synchronicity” by Swiss psychologist Carl Jung. In the 1920s, Jung first coined the term to describe what he called “temporally coincident occurrences of acausal events,” or in other words, “meaningful coincidence.” Synchronicity can describe the governing dynamic that underlies human experience and leads to our collective unconscious. Under this logic, events that are seemingly unlikely to occur together by chance may occur together in a meaningful manner.

So maybe there is some reason this random girl and I keep crossing. Up until now, I’ve been too lazy or scared to bridge the gap and actually ask her her name, where she is from and what she is doing at the Eiffel Tower on a Tuesday morning, just as I am. Perhaps there is an important meaning in our meetings, a meaning I couldn’t possibly know yet because for whatever reason, it has not yet been the time to find out. Maybe it will be something profound that will change the course of my life forever. It could be like Edward Lorenz’s “butterfly effect” within the chaos theory, where a small change at one place in time can result in major differences in a later state. Our connection could change history as we know it.

Or maybe, who knows, it could just be happenstance.

Fed up with Facebook: Why I quit my social media addiction

My friend Celeste says our generation’s contribution to evolution will be smaller thumbs. Why? With all the cell phone communication of today, our thumbs will progressively shrink in order to aide us in texting, scrolling, and emailing from the comfort of our mini hand-held telephones. If you live in a bustling metropolis, you’ll know what I’m talking about. While you will still find many riders abord city transport reading the newspaper or, heaven forbid, a book, most people are attached to their cell phones like a druggie on crack. As the world grows increasingly more individualistic and our opportunities for virtual relationships go up, our outlets for real human interaction are reduced to the size of a peanut. Blame it on the Blackberry or the iPhone or Twitter, if you like, but when was the last time you looked your fellow metro rider in the eye and said hello? Here in Paris, such audacious friendliness would get you at the very least an annoyed stare and more realistically, mutterings of “Leave me alone, crazy lady.”

I have recently decided to take a self-imposed social media vacation. Call it amazing willpower if you like, but I think it has more to do with intense exasperation. How could I not be fed up with myself? My morning ritual had become: Wake up to alarm. Check emails on Blackberry. Check Facebook wall. Check weather on Blackberry internet browser. Get ready for work. Listen to music on Mp3 player. Get on metro. Check Facebook wall again. Look at new text messages and respond. Witness funny, interesting or weird event in metro and describe, using witty repartee, for publication on Facebook wall. Arrive at work. Check to see if any “friends” have “liked” comment about funny, interesting, weird event in metro. Put phone in pocket and repeat above steps.

AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

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Needless to say, I’ve had enough. Last night, I stayed on Facebook searching friends’ photos and obsessively checking who was on the chat in a last attempt to be connected before I shut off for good. (In reality, all I have to do to get my Facebook account back is sign in, but it’s the thought that counts.) At midnight, I checked myself out. Yet, I still felt I hadn’t done enough. To the Blackberry I went, removing the Facebook application as well as the internet browser. No more impulsive searching for needless information I simply must know rightthisminute. And finally, I set my phone’s email alert to quiet and hid the application in a place I hoped I wouldn’t remember to find.

Three days later, anxiety set in. Of all my media cut-offs, Facebook withdrawal was the worst. I started to fret about what everyone else was doing and had the sneaking suspicion I was missing out. Worse, were there events I wasn’t going to be invited to because I was no longer people’s “friends”? Would I be subject to the dreaded “Out of sight, out of mind” adage? The next day, I got caught in the rain without my umbrella, not having checked the weather from my Blackberry in the morning as usual. And in the metro without my Facebook to check on my Blackberry, I twiddled my thumbs staring at all the bored Parisian faces… who were all on their cell phones.

But then a funny thing happened. The anxiety of worrying about what I was missing in other people’s lives was replaced by the filling up of my own reality. Instead of wasting all this time in my virtual life, I started truly living my real one. That bored Parisian face on the metro wasn’t in fact bored. She was crying, perhaps over a lost lover or sick parent – who knows – but she smiled gratefully when I offered her a Kleenex… something I may not have thought to do if I were attached to my phone. And for the first time in months, I read the whole newspaper on my ride to work, without interruption from one of my many handheld media outlets.

Not only was the mental fog slowly lifting, but so were the needless thoughts about people I really should be forgetting. The frenemy who offended me last week is easier to ignore when I don’t have to see her face on my Facebook wall every morning. And that email from my mother about what meal I want when I first arrive in the US next week? It can wait until I get home tonight.

What disturbs me in all of this is what I thought I was getting out of my virtual social circle. With constructing the perfect witty comment for all my Facebook friends to see, I was also inevitably hoping for a response, a “like” or a virtual pat on the back. It didn’t so much matter that my 407 friends knew about the Spanish tourist who spent five minutes on the Parisian metro floor in his attempt to dislodge an Orangina bottle from the vending machine, as it did that people thought my comment was damn funny. But it’s more than needing mass approval or validation. It’s the need to be part of something bigger than ourselves, to be a member of a community in the world at large, to not feel so alone in this expanding universe as people get more spread out by globalisation, and increasingly disconnected from one another. Why else would people feel the inescapable urge to post things like, “I ate strawberries for dinner tonight!” or “Go Bears!”

But being connected isn’t always so rosy. The need to “Keep up with the Jones’s” is palpable, what with the bombardment of friends’ beautiful baby photos, wedding announcements or news of new houses, jobs or clothes. You’ll be hard-pressed to find friends who will publicly announce their parents’ divorce, alcohol addiction or daily unhappiness. Thanks to Facebook, Twitter and the like, grass on the other side always seems better manicured, mowed and watered. On this side, there’s always something that needs improving, which I suppose is fine if that means being more motivated to make positive life changes, but if every friend’s beautiful baby photo makes you less and less happy about being without child, your mood is doomed to go sour.

Now a week into my social media break, I feel better. Calmer, more in control. Present. When I’m at the grocery store checkout, I’m not simultaneously festering over the photos my ex-boyfriend has posted of him and his new girlfriend on Facebook. I’m just looking the cashier in the eye and taking my change. Life feels simpler, less chaotic… strange. It will take me a few weeks to get used to this. Already the urges to get reconnected are trickling in. I almost cracked yesterday but I resisted, with the help of my friend here in Paris. That’s the difference between a Facebook friend and a real one. When the shit hits the fan, your virtual community can only help you so much.

Maybe someday I’ll go back. Maybe that someday will be next week, or even tomorrow. But living in the present seems pretty good to me right now, so I’m holding my ground. After all, despite what this bustling world might emit to the contrary, all we really have is right now, this moment, in the place where you are reading this very article. And if you’re playing Sudoku on your cell phone instead, you just might miss it.

Riot police clear Tunisians from Paris gym as government cuts aid

 

French police have cracked down on Tunisian migrants who have come to this country since the revolution that ousted president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. A group of squatters were flushed out of a Paris gym on Tuesday and the city council says that, thanks to government cuts, their situation is set to get worse.

Maamri is 30-years-old and has been living homeless in Paris for the past six months. On Tuesday night, he was looking for a garden to sleep in after finding his temporary home at a gymnasium in the north-east of the city, closed and blocked off by more than 100 CRS riot police.

“Today, I came back after looking for a job to take a shower, as usual, and to take my things, my bag, my medication, and there was a police officer who told me ‘get out of here and shut your mouth’ before pushing me … I don’t know what I’m going to do … where I’ll go to sleep,” he says.

CRS vans drawn up near the Belleville gym

(Courtney Traub)

Maamri joins upwards of 100 Tunisian migrants who found themselves on the street without their belongings around 10 pm, Tuesday night. They had been illegally occupying the Belleville gymnasium since 1 May but the Paris city council had let them stay – with repeated warnings that the situation was only temporary.

Finally, after extending the deadline at least once, the city moved to shutter it for good on Tuesday.

“We decided to close the gym rather than have it evacuated because we wanted to avoid having to make arrests,” says deputy mayor Pascale Boistard, who is head of integration of non-Europeans.

“We also need to give back this centre to the community, which was unable to access its services since the illegal occupation of the gymnasium. And the roof, in particular, needs repairs,” Nathalie Royer of the mayor’s office added.

Boistard says the city of Paris has struggled to secure alternative housing for the migrants, in cooperation with the NGOs Auroreand France Terre d’Asile. And they were warned in advance that the gym would be closed, she says.

“We had a list of around 80 Tunisian migrants whose situation we have been following closely in cooperation with several organisations, and who have been sleeping regularly at the gym,” says Boistard. “We managed to find emergency housing for 40 of them. Of the 40 others, several refused our propositions and some remained without a solution.”

Royer says that Paris is the only city in France to have set up an action plan to aid the migrants, who left Tunisia after the revolution that overthrew Ben Ali’s government. More than 5,000 people landed on the Italian island of Lampedusa in January and, as the French governmentanticipated, many went on to France to find work and a better life.

But budget problems have caused services to Tunisian refugees to screech to a halt. The mayor’s office says by the time the emergency action plan will have expired on 31 August, the state will have spent 1.4 million euros on emergency housing and aid to Tunisian migrants since the start of the Arab Spring.

“Unfortunately the plan won’t be extended. The resources are simply not there,” says Boistard. “And it’s not our job but the state’s. We started the action plan because this is a terrible humanitarian crisis. The state refuses to take care of the Tunisian migrants, and its only response is to arrest and deport them.”

Boistard sees the situation getting much worse in the face of severe budgetary constraints and plans by Nicolas Sarkozy’s government to cut back on emergency housing.

“By September, I expect 5,000 additional homeless foreigners and French people to be out on the streets,” she says.

The city’s explanations were of little comfort to many of the Tunisians left on the street on Tuesday night. They blamed the French government for the lack of aid.

Brahim, 16, says he came to France looking for work and a better life but has felt disillusioned since arriving. “In Italy, people helped us all the time. Now that we’re in France, nothing. There are so many Arabs here but no one is helping us.”

For Maamri, every day since he left Tunisia six months ago has been a struggle. Living without an income, he says he subsists on one meal a day, which he usually scrounges from local cafes. “It’s like I’m doing Ramadan [the Muslim fasting month],” he jokes.

For many like Maamri, dreams of creating a new life in Europe are wearing thin.

“I came here because it’s Paris,” he says. “You know, the dream of Paris. But it’s been so hard. I think I might just go back home.”

Reprinted from Radio France International on July 7, 2011.

Riding through Paris in a Sardine Can…

There was a time, long ago I suspect, when I still had some semblance of personal space. Personal space and a wee bit of sanity.

Now is not one of those times. As I march like a member of the national guard through the Saint-Lazare metro station, I wipe that silly Midwestern smile off my face and assume the Paris Stance: shoulders up and back, eyes that could stop a deer in its tracks, and a pair of 2-inch boots that aren’t afraid to step on your heel if you even think about slowing down. I’m carrying a Saint Bernard-sized purse to boot, which not only holds my entire life inside but is also quite practical for taking down those groups of teenage girls who clog up the metro corridors.

As I push past yet another graying man walking 3 mph, I let out a deep and very French huff, puffing my cheeks out to their breaking point and throwing in an eye roll for good measure. I snicker at the woman who has somehow managed to trap herself between the bar of the turnstile and the metal barrier, her four crisp designer brand bags wedged up against her face. I tap my metro card over the barcode reader and slide through effortlessly. No one, and I mean no one, will take me off my course.

But wait, what’s this? A huge crowd has formed around some guy singing Curtis Mayfield for small change. Haven’t French people ever heard soul music before? Apparently not. I break past them, narrowly missing the foot of a blond model-type in a red pea coat, who seems to be entranced by the jams, as she comes at me from the other direction. More huffing and puffing ensues.

At last, line two! But first I have to navigate the throng of passengers exiting before I can go up the stairs to the platform. I feel like a rainbow trout trying to go against a river current. It’s no use. Whatever I do, I’m pressed in from all sides. I go left when the woman coming towards me goes right, so I swing right, only to knock into an angry businessman. I finally get to the right lane and assume the Paris Stance in order to make my way up to the platform without being killed.

After three whole minutes of waiting (I am forced to pull out my 200-page novel to cope), the metro finally arrives. Ugh. I forgot that it’s Wednesday at 7:15: Primetime, baby. I cram in with the rest of the sardines, my already sweaty back pressed up against a stocky old man and my face in a head of black curls. If questioned, I could undoubtedly tell you which shampoo the woman used this morning (Garnier Argan Cranberry, by the way). I’m suddenly reminded of my friend Kass, who once said during a particularly packed metro ride home in Tokyo a few years back, “If someone touches me, I’m going to get pregnant.” We are that close.

At Opera, the cars spit out hoards of people. Only half come back in. I scramble frantically towards a seat. My back is killing me with this humongous bag. My tuckus is inches away from freedom when I spot the doe-eyes of a very pregnant woman before me. I smile pathetically and say, “Allez-y.” I feel like crying.

As I grab onto the sweaty pole in the center of the aisle, contemplating the difference between Dante’s inferno and my current situation, I pan back to a recent email from my friend in the Dordogne, which I have not yet responded to: “Hi Colette! How is city life treating you? I hope you’re still the same person as before and haven’t turned into one of those arrogant and pretentious Parisians!”

Nah.

Originally published in Brit’mag, No. 44

Going Home Again

What’s the old adage? “You can never go home again”? I’ve decided that as an American living in France, it is my duty to put this theory to the test to find out if it’s just an old wives’ tale or somehow based in truth. It’s been one year and 10 months since I’ve seen the other side of the Atlantic and I feel surprisingly unhinged about my impending trip home.

The much-loved cliché originates from novelist Thomas Wolfe’s 1940 You Can’t Go Home Again. In the book, Wolfe discusses the themes of a changing America and the passing of time, within the context of a series of events that inhibit his main character George Webber of ever being able to return home again. The title of the book refers to Webber’s realization that “you can’t go back home to your family, back home to your childhood…. Back home to the old forms and systems of things which once seemed everlasting but which are changing all the time.” Basically, looking back, much less going there, is emotional suicide.

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So, here I am, in my parents’ house in Minneapolis, with remnants of my youth all around me. The first thing that returns is my pre-cell phone memory. I can’t pass a house within a ten-block radius without some long lost childhood recollection crossing my mind. Names I haven’t thought about for years pop back into my head. Old faces trigger experiences long passed. Seeing a former teacher reminds me of who I once was and who I once wanted to be. It’s painful, confusing, gut wrenching, glorious and enlightening. Who knew going back home would be so similar to schizophrenia?

Some things are the same, like good friends. The not-so-good ones show their shadows early and so, like Punxsutawney Phil, retreat into their holes, too deep to dig up ever again. The clothing people wear in the Midwest certainly is blasphemous, but I guess it always was. And the food. Don’t even get me started. If I don’t die of high fructose corn syrup poisoning by the time these five weeks are up, I’ll probably become an addict instead, requiring a drip of the stuff to slowly wean me off when I head back to France.

What I do know is that something has undeniably changed. People have changed. And it’s not because of 9 to 5 jobs or weddings or babies. It’s more than that. Life here has moved on and I am no longer a part of it. Of course, most would say that I left first, that I escaped my life to create a new one with different and more exciting memories – which is perhaps true. But can’t dualism hold a place in life? Can’t we have our cake and eat it too? In other words, can I leave home for good, but still keep a part of it back in Paris?

Whether or not I’m allowed to take a piece of my Minnesota self back to France, I know that I undoubtedly will. My twenty-some years in the U.S. won’t disappear just because I have acquired a certain fondness for buttery pastries, high fashion and the language of love. Being American has never felt so intrinsic to me than it has in these past few weeks – when I was eating my Uncle Allan’s barbecued hamburgers or putting ice in my water glass or laughing about Sarah Palin with my friend Jenny. Call them the small things, but they’re part of what makes me unique over there on the European side.

I hope that after five, or even ten more years in France, I’ll still be able to recognize those so-very American qualities in myself. I also hope that all the amazing French habits I have adopted will be wedged in there alongside. Maybe then, every time I visit home, I won’t have to worry about whether or not I’ve left it too long, whether the life I left behind me is too far back to retrieve. I’ll just know in that intangible sort of way that home is inside of me forever.

First published in Brit’mag, November/December 2010

Former Political Prisoner Roxana Saberi Speaks out

American journalist Roxana Saberi spoke at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota tonight about her experiences as a political prisoner in Iran. In January 2009, Saberi was charged with espionage by the Iranian government and spent 100 days in jail. Her book, “Between Two Worlds: My Life and Captivity in Iran” is just out, and she is on a worldwide tour speaking out about international human rights.

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Saberi was working in Iran as a freelance reporter and researching a book about Iranian culture when she was arrested at her home on spying charges. After being coerced into confessing, she was sentenced to eight years in prison. With the help of her parents and the media, Saberi was able to get her story out of Iranian prison borders and was finally released in May 2009.

While Saberi recognizes that her public presence as a journalist contributed to her release, she says that the majority of detainees are not always so lucky. Political prisoners in Iran can go months without anyone finding out about their arrest because, she says, “if you are a threat to national security, you lose your human rights.” That means no phone call, no rights to a lawyer.

Iran’s human rights record has taken a beating in recent months. In June, protests erupted across Tehran on the anniversary of last year’s disputed presidential election, resulting in police clashes across the city. And all eyes have been on the three American hikers detained in Iran after accidentally wandering from Iraq into Iranian territory last year. Sarah Shourd, the only female of the trio, was released last week after Iran faced intense scrutiny from the international community.

Saberi, who says that she has tried to turn her “challenges into opportunities,” hopes that Minnesotans will continue to fight for human rights at home and abroad. While she is unsure about her future as a journalist, she is extremely passionate about raising awareness.

“If we don’t speak out about [human rights],” she said, “violators will think they can continue getting away with it.”

Sarkozy ousts more Romas

As French President Nicolas Sarkozy deports another round of Romas, he is becoming increasingly entrenched in a hell of his own making. Calls of condemnation have poured in from the European Commission, while human rights organizations are calling Sarkozy’s actions an attempt to purify French culture, much like the Nazis did during World War II.

Much of the debate centers around the fact that most of the Romas – or gypsies – in France come from Romania and Bulgaria, which entered the European Union in 2007. As the European Commission explains on its website:

“There are between 10 million and 12 million Roma in the EU, in candidate countries and potential candidate countries in the Western Balkans. Roma people living in the European Union are EU citizens and have the same rights as any other EU citizen.”

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The reasoning behind Sarkozy’s deportations are shady at best, and an example of ethnic cleansing at their worst. He claims that Romas are only contributing to more prostitution, crime and violence in the country, and are a burden to the already overloaded social welfare system.

Regardless of the merits of these claims, Sarkozy is in a pickle. Not only are Romas EU citizens, but their wandering lifestyle is protected. As stated by French law, towns of a certain size are required to designate an area specifically for traveling folk and gypsies – or “gens du voyage” – where families have access to schools, churches, and medical and shopping facilities. While some of the people living in these camps are regular French-born citizens in search of a more adventurous way of life, an increasing number are from Eastern Europe.

Sarkozy is no doubt well-versed in French law, but much like Bush’s embarrassing Weapons of Mass Destruction campaign, is trying to pull the wool over our eyes. Perhaps it is his attempt to distract everyone from his very poorly-received retirement bill that recently passed, which will up the retiring age from 60 to 62 by 2018. Or maybe he’s still trying to disentangle himself from the whole Bettencourt affair, where he and his ministries seemed to have taken part in, or at least known about, the L’Oreal heiress’ massive tax evasions.

Or maybe Sarkozy is just trying to implement the most outlandish and shocking new laws before he is ousted from office in April 2012, which he is sure to be. In any case, the French president should plan to feel the wrath of not only his countrymen but of the international community in the days to come.