Tag Archives: paris

“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.

Advertisements

The ‘F’ in February stands for F%$#ing cold!

It is not human to endure this sort of suffering. I seem to tell myself this each and every February, as hellish January (and December, for that matter) has come to a close, leaving me with unbearable February. There is just nothing good about this month, apart from the cheap chocolate fallout from Valentine’s Day, a holiday that inevitably has me alternating between gagging and feeling incredibly sorry for myself.

But my real bone to pick with February is this god awful, torturous cold. It’s like that nagging ex who just won’t get the hint to fuck off once and for all. I know I am from Minnesota and I am supposed to be “used to it” (as every French person tells me during the winter months, as if my being born in a cold state means I was also born with a thick coat of fur like a polar bear), but I’m just not. I’m so beyond fed up.

And I wondered how many others felt this way, in a city such as Paris where girls walk around in sheer tights, miniscule leather coats and wet hair in the middle of a snowstorm. Until I listened to the not-so-subtle clues… and turns out, everyone is fed up. “J’en peux plus!”, “J’en ai marre!” Ok, Frenchies, we get it, you’ve had enough! Me too.

But what to do? I do not have enough cash from my pathetic high school girl’s job to take a trip to the islands, or even the south of France, if that’s even better than here.

In my dire state, I have plastered cheesy pictures of tropical beaches – white sand, shimmering turquoise waters… the occasional tiki hut – to the wall in front of my desk. So, while I am actually typing about Iranian female autobiographies written in exile, I am imagining myself lying semi-clothed in the shallow end of the Mediterranean. I can almost taste the sweet syrup of my Pina Colada – served, of course, by a tan, bare-chested barman – when BAM!!

The window in the hallway is blown open, the black packing tape that my roommate has affixed to keep it wedged closed having come loose, and an enormous “courant d’air” sweeps through my bedroom. And great. My lungs go directly into spasm. Bronchitis. Again. Damn those French people and their fixation on “attraper le froid” – come on, people, you don’t actually catch a cold by “catching cold”…. or do you. I really, REALLY hate to admit that they are right on this one, but it seems to be so. I suppose the snotty-nosed brats I work for aren’t helping my cause much either.

Back in my bed I go. I HATE winter. When is it over. I will hibernate here until the sun comes out again. I have enough canned goods to last at least two months, running water and three small bottles of aged Scotch, so don’t worry about me, I will be just fine. But better check on me in a few weeks, just to be sure I haven’t forgotten that showering and teeth brushing are necessary components of life. Otherwise, go out and enjoy yourself, kids. Send me some updates from time to time about life out there in the arctic. I’ll hold down the fort here.

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.

[picapp align=”center” wrap=”false” link=”term=downtown+minneapolis&iid=8491714″ src=”http://view4.picapp.com/pictures.photo/image/8491714/boston-red-sox-minnesota/boston-red-sox-minnesota.jpg?size=500&imageId=8491714″ width=”234″ height=”156″ /]

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

The things we do for freedom

In honor of the Human Rights Festival currently showing in Paris, I’d like to tell the stories of a few of my immigrant friends in France. As immigration laws get tighter in France and around the world, it’s worth considering their human effects. One must ask, what makes one human more worthy of rights than another? Are country borders more important than saving a human soul? Before we write a law restricting access to those in need, we must realize that in fact every person’s needs are the same, regardless of nationality: clean water and food, decent housing, education, medical care, etc. Governments must reconcile the need of those within their country borders and those who arrive seeking help.

[picapp align=”center” wrap=”false” link=”term=human+rights+festival&iid=2460862″ src=”2/a/3/3/South_Korea_Celebrate_b776.jpg?adImageId=11286956&imageId=2460862″ width=”380″ height=”254″ /]

Mila is Serbian. She came to France 11 years ago with her Serbian husband, who worked in construction. She soon found work in a local grocery store, learned the language and integrated into society. Three years later, she and her husband divorced. She chose to stay in France, and had no problem renewing her visa. All she did when she moved houses following the divorce, was to go to the prefecture to change her address. Her new visa arrived soon after with the same status, even though now she had no links to France, besides having lived in the country for three years. At the time, her country was in the throngs of war – this may be the only reason she was not sent back home. Now, when she goes back to Serbia, she is disgusted by the prices in the clothing and shoe shops. The Serbian economy is no pitiful that an average salary is the equivalent to 150 euros a month. Yet, the prices in the shops are the same as in France. The distance between the rich and the poor is growing, and finding jobs is nearly impossible. Mila’s father has been out of work for 10 years, after the plant where he worked closed. He has since not been able to find work. Mila’s mother has never worked. Thus, every month, Mila sends part of her paycheck home to help her family survive.

Palden is Tibetan. He was born in India and has never been to Tibet. However, he was born with and always has had “refugee” status in India, given no passport but a special travel pass instead. Unlike France or America, one cannot be born into a nationality there. Your nationality is predetermined and the line between Indian and otherwise is strictly separated. For this reason, Palden came to France to find work, to leave his refugee status behind and to make a new life for himself as a French citizen. Once here, he had to stay mum on his life in India. If discovered, he would be sent back. After all, why would a Tibetan need to escape India? He is not in danger there, it is a safe haven. However, he will never have full Indian rights, so he has come to France. Thus, he says he was born in Tibet, speaks a few lines of Chinese at his visa appointment, and is given a French visa for two years before he can apply for citizenship. Once he receives it, he is free to travel anywhere in the world, in particular, Tibet. He can finally return to his unfamiliar homeland and use his knowledge from the Western world to make change in Tibet.

Tsering is also Tibetan. She was born in Tibet. When she was 18, she crossed the mountains with a friend to escape to India. The pair spent a month on foot, through dense snow and freezing temperatures, living off tsampa – patties made of flour and butter tea. They arrived in India, only to find the living conditions far less desirable than expected. Not only were they strangers in a strange land, but they had to adjust to the toxic water, polluted air and new food. The girls were often sick. They couldn’t find work and couldn’t speak Hindi or English. Eventually, they were fed up. They made the decision to go back to Tibet, fulling knowing what this meant: spending another month crossing back over those same mountains into Tibet, where Chinese police would most likely arrest them and put them in jail for 3 to 6 months. They might be tortured, they might not be. But at least they could see their friends and families again.

David is from Chad. His country has been in war on and off for ten years. After graduating from high school, he went to university in Cameroon. He also spent some time in Nigeria learning English. He decided to further his studies in France, where he was soon met with a visa nightmare. Because his country is at war on and off, he is constantly waiting it out, constantly wondering if he will be sent back home the minute peace breaks through for a few hopeful days. In the meantime, he is considered an “asylum seeker.” What he really wants is “refugee” status. At least this way, he will be on the fast track for citizenship or a more stable visa status. As things are now, he has to renew his asylum seeker visa every three months. He can never settle and never feel like he is moving in a linear, forward direction. The word “precarious” comes to mind. So does the word “stress.”

I read an article in Le Monde the other day about two Afghan men who decided to escape their war-torn country to come to London. Thus began a heroic, 6-month adventure halfway across the world. One man sold his taxi upon leaving in order to have enough money for the trip, the other quit his job. Both men spent approximately 17,000 dollars to pay traffickers to help them cross the borders of Iran, Turkey, Greece, Italy, then France. They were Calais, on their way to London (and thinking they were scot free) when they were found by police while sleeping in an abandoned house. The French police told them they’d be alright, that they wouldn’t be kicked out of the country. But upon arriving at the airport (even under the police’s pretext that they would be allowed to stay) they were hustled onto an airplane and sent home to Kabul. Once there, they found that their families had rejected them for having left. Their jobs were gone, they had no home and they now owed traffickers nearly 20,000 dollars each. They did all of this for freedom, making it to the last leg of their trip before meeting an untimely end in France, a country they trusted to provide them safe harbor. As one of the men mentioned to police, they were simply passing through France, not staying indefinitely. So why did the French police expel them?

[picapp align=”center” wrap=”false” link=”term=afghanistan&iid=8250828″ src=”4/d/5/4/Ceremony_to_hand_fa0e.JPG?adImageId=11286913&imageId=8250828″ width=”380″ height=”254″ /]

And my own story. I worked in Marseille from 2003-2005 as an English assistant. I came back to France in 2008 as a “jeune professionnelle,” which can be loosely translated into “paid intern.” I intended to stay for 18 months and hoped to stay for longer. I worked for a newspaper in Southwest France, run by a vicious alcoholic who polluted our work environment on a daily basis. Over half of the staff were clinically depressed. Eight months later, the business went under and we all got laid off. I found myself in a foreign country, alone and unemployed. When it came time to renew my visa, I did so as an unemployed citizen. My renewal was accepted. I was paid monthly installments to keep me afloat while I looked for a new job. After 8 months of searching, I found a teaching job in Paris. My visa has always said “salariee,” which means I am allowed to work in any capacity in France. However, when I tried to renew my visa this past February, it was rejected, on the grounds that as a “jeune professionnelle,” I had overstayed my welcome in France and had worked illegally for my current employer. I now have one month to do an appeal of the DDTE’s decision and if it doesn’t go through, I am expected to drop my entire life and jump on a plane back home. After a total of four years here, I speak the language almost perfectly, I pay French taxes, I have a full-time CDI (timeline undetermined) work contract – I don’t ask anyone for anything. Yet I am being told to leave.

I tell these stories because when we watch the nightly news or pick up a newspaper, we rarely hear the personal stories behind immigration. All we hear are the talking heads and their impressions of current laws. Perhaps if these same lawmakers took a few moments to listen to what is really going on around them, none of us would be in this mess. I cross our fingers for all of us.

Tibetans in Paris March for Freedom – Tibetan National Uprising Day

Hundreds took to the streets of Paris on Wednesday in honor of the 51st Tibetan National Uprising Day. While holding signs reading, “Stop the Torture in Tibet” and shouting messages of “Hu Jintao: Assassin!”, demonstrators marched along the Seine towards the Chinese embassy, where the group strengthened its calls for freedom.

For the Tibetan exiled community, National Uprising Day is one of the most important events of the year, alongside New Year festivities in February. The day marks the anniversary of March 10th, 1959, when Tibetans in the capital city of Lhasa rose up against their nearly 9 years of Chinese occupation. Despite the Tibetans’ peaceful protest, a bloody battle ensued and almost 90,000 Tibetans were killed. Exiled communities worldwide use the day as a platform to promote justice for Tibet.

Protesters march towards the Chinese embassy in Paris

As per tradition, Tibet’s exiled spiritual leader the Dalai Lama, made a statement from his home in Dharamsala, India. He reiterated his desire for Tibet’s autonomy, despite Beijing’s continually hard-line stand. The Dalai Lama called on Tibetans to respect others, educate themselves and continue working to preserve Tibetan language and culture. He also expressed the need for China’s 1.3 billion citizens to have free access to information and greater transparency within the country.

Tseyang, a board member of the Communauté Tibétaine de France, who jointly organized the Paris demonstration with La Maison du Tibet, hopes that the day’s protest will bring some sort of change within the current Sino-Tibetan dialogue.

“The Chinese government should try to better understand the situation,” she said as she marched, “Tibet and China are in their ninth round of talks and there are still no concrete results.”

A young Tibetan supporter

The Dalai Lama sent envoys to Beijing at the end of January to resume negotiations between China and Tibet, which again were fruitless. International intervention has not yet produced any significant change for the Tibet issue, which often gets pushed under the table due to Chinese pressure or in favor of more pressing political concerns. U.S. President Barack Obama met the Dalai Lama last month, resulting in angry reactions from the Chinese government.

Sonam Topgyl, an exiled Tibetan living in Paris, believes that the Uprising Day protest will be useful in its ability to bring light to the situation in Tibet and to show China that Tibetans are still fighting for freedom. “When it comes to politics, it’s difficult. But what France can do is to talk about the Tibetan situation to the rest of the world,” he said. Uprising Day demonstrations were planned for today in cities across France, as well as in other parts of the globe.

Above all, Sonam hopes that talking about Tibet will one day result in real change. Holding his Tibetan flag high in the air as he marched, he said, “What I would like is for Tibet to have the same rights as in France – culture, religion, everything.”

The demonstration finished in front of the Wall for Peace overlooking the Eiffel Tower

24h sans nous: Protest in Paris shows impact of immigrants

Hundreds gathered at the Hotel de Ville in Paris today for “24h Sans Nous,” a protest in honor of the city’s growing immigrant population. Organizers of “Association La Journée sans immigrés” called for immigrants to avoid working or consuming for 24 hours on March 1st, in an attempt to show governments that France’s economy would plummet without their presence.

During the peaceful protest, a demonstration by a group of the city’s “sans-papiers” (illegal immigrant) population joined the crowd, beating djembes and shouting for  regularization of their legal status. Yellow ribbons, stickers and t-shirts were on sale for supporters.

Protesters stand behind a sign reading, "We are all immigrants"

A protester shows the plethora of documents needed in order to prove one's French citizenship

The political climate in France has turned sour on the issue of immigration in recent months after the government launched a controversial “national identity” campaign that many felt stigmatized immigrants or children of immigrants. “Association La Journee Sans Immigres” is using today’s protest as a platform to speak openly about France’s immigration policies and regulations. Since July 2006, the country’s borders have become significantly more closed, particularly to unskilled workers.

Europe, as a whole, is struggling with integrating the growing number of foreigners arriving and looking for residency or work. Greece, Italy and Spain have seen some of the continent’s largest growth in the past year and numbers are only expected to rise in coming years.

Demonstrations similar to the one in Paris were expected in other parts of France and across Europe today.

A protester holds a sign reading "Illegal immigrants are angry, the racist laws, it's shameful"

A group of sans-papiers line up in protest