Tag Archives: politics

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!”


Originally published in Brit’mag, No. 44

Hold on, we’ve got a crier: Gender equal weeping on the political stage

I was starting to have hope that Americans were finally riding the feminist wave. The U.S. has several women in higher office and Hillary Clinton was a viable candidate for the presidency in 2008. Even Sarah Palin, as embarrassing as she is to my gender, has managed to take a certain lead in the political arena. Yet why, after all these advancements, are women still expected to conform to some antiquated notion of what a woman in power is supposed to look like?

Tough, unemotional, severe, uncompromising. The list goes on. Why must a female politician be a masculine, uncaring brute while her male counterparts are allowed to tear up, whimper and all-out sob at the podium with nothing more than a congratulatory pat on the back for having feelings?

Case in point, Time Magazine’s November 15th article on John Boehner. First, we are expected to cozy up to Boehner’s deep, dark tan and likening to a slightly older John F. Kennedy. Then we are supposed to thank our lucky stars that the man knows how to cry.

“You can tell a lot about a man from his tears, and U.S. House Speaker-to-be John Boehner has always been a weeper. He cried on the House floor while defending the Wall Street bailout and once choked up during a partisan speech accusing Democrats of abandoning the troops in Iraq. But he also used to bawl every year during the fundraisers he co-chaired with his friend Ted Kennedy for cash-strapped Catholic schools. “John’s got the biggest heart in the House,” says Republican conference boss Mike Pence, who lost a leadership election to Boehner in 2006. “My preacher used to say, ‘When the eyes leak, the head won’t swell.”

Now, can you imagine if, say, Hillary Clinton opened herself up to this type of emotional bearing-all? The few times Hillary has showed her feelings on the political stage, it has cost her. She was described as “weak” and many doubted her abilities to handle all the tough decisions that come with a job in politics. While male politicians are rewarded for showing emotion, women are penalized and only praised for expressing uber-masculine traits.

A good example is in the same Time magazine issue, where the Arts section has a special piece on Sarah Palin’s upcoming reality TV show. Among the half dozen pictures are shots of Palin doing the following: Holding a hunting rifle. Driving a four-wheeler. Mounting a log with a chainsaw in hand. Are we supposed to believe that the only way to take this woman seriously is when she is “acting like a man?”

The day we can say that we have reached gender equality is the day when a woman is allowed to dress as femininely as she desires and openly weep during a campaign rally, without being judged for abusing her sexual prowess or lacking emotional stability. Or when a man is not applauded for tearing up over the thousands of civilians killed in a war abroad — not because it isn’t incredibly sad, but because crying is merited by any human being in these horrible circumstances. Until we embrace emotional outpouring as a human condition and not a gender condition, we just aren’t there yet.

And please, for the love of God, someone take that chainsaw away from Sarah Palin. Nothing good can come from that.

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.

A Bad Case of the Wants

It is just another Saturday afternoon in Paris. I am being pushed along with the hoards of tourists near Opéra, admiring the sales of 30, 50, even 70 percent off! As fashionistas stroll by me effortlessly by the dozen, I grab my purse with a death-grip and keep on walking…

Madonna said it best when she sang, “’Cause we are living in a material world and I am a material girl.” Try as we might, we are all products of our culture, which in the West has come to favor consumerism and capitalism and all the nasty things that come along with them. Unless, of course, you are French, and then you might be able to proclaim socialism (which has become a serious gros mot in America) and weasel your way out of the blame-fest.

Lately, I can’t step foot into a Monoprix or Galeries Lafayette without enduring the wrath of insults about Americans and their spendthrift ways. As a friend said to me a while back, “I don’t understand you Americans – you make tons of money for the sole goal of spending it on more and more things.” Unnecessary, gratuitous things, is what she meant.

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Maybe my friend is right. Maybe we Americans are just gluttons for the latest new lipstick, speedboat or washing machine. But in the past few years, it seems that the French are catching up.

At a recent babysitting gig, I couldn’t help but choke over the inane amount of miniature plastic Petshop animals lying about the little girl’s bedroom. This was only seconded to her brother’s piles of Playmobiles, which threatened to burst out of the toy box. Granted, the family came from a certain moyen, but the consumer-driven sickness of wanting “more, more, more” seemed to be descending upon this innocent French household.

Cases of “The Wants” are even more prevalent in the French countryside, where home fix-ups and expansive yards give way to the ever-present desire for more useless stuff. A friend in the southwest told me she felt a thrill every time she made a purchase, whether it was a sparkly top for herself, the jungle-gym for her 2 year-old son or that new dryer for the garage. Some of the items still had the price tags on them months later, leaving little reminders of the sheer joy of spending her hard-earned cash.

In his article, “Consumerism and the New Capitalism,” American-turned-Switzerland resident Rip Cronk writes: “Consumerism is the myth that the individual will be gratified and integrated by consuming…. Self-worth is gauged by buying power.” Yet, the more we spend, the more empty we feel. We don’t ever seem to have as much as what’s-his-name next door, and the envy greens us from the inside.

The issue of Big Business and mass media controlling our consumer habits is not just an American problem anymore. A quick flip through French TV channels offers a bombardment of French and foreign-born ads hoping to catch you or your little one’s eye.  Advertisers have even snuck into the cinema with us, eating up our 10-euro ticket with over 15 minutes of commercials for everything from the local pizza joint to the latest Fanta flavor.

But maybe I should just hold my tongue and wait for better days ahead. After all, President Sarkozy has promised to eliminate TV ads from public channels by 2011. The phase-out has already begun, with ad sales dropping 5% in 2009 from its $4.6 billion of spending in 2008, according to ZenithOptimedia. The change is estimated to cut $700 million in advertising for state-owned stations, nearly 15% of France’s total ad dollars – bad news for business, better news for the average Joe.

So, while there’s still hope for the French, it would seem that we Americans are just too far gone to save. With our super-size mentality and increasing dependence on corporate America, all we can do now is hold on tight to our La-Z-Boys and giant slushies and hope for the best. Only our TiVOs can help us now.

Also published in Brit’mag