At this point, I don’t think there is anything I can add that hasn’t already been said by people who are more closely connected to the tragedy.
Some of you may know that I once worked for a French company. I loved it. It was the best job I ever had. I had many French colleagues and visited France several times on business. Brook went to France with me one time. One of my best memories of France was ditching our luggage at the hotel and running off to the Eiffel Tower because she was so excited to climb to the top. She was only 8. Silly girl. We got to the fourth level and took the elevator the rest of the way.
It was a cloudy day at the top overlooking the Seine. Some irritable toddler was crying incessantly. But Brook and I took in the view of Paris while she struggled to keep her heavy lids open. I was wide awake, glad to have such a “rash and inexperienced traveller” as my companion. Once she got on the Metro without me and I had just seconds to pull her off before the doors closed. There might have been a good children’s story about Brook’s adventure in Paris, lost on the Metro, but I nearly had a heart attack, She crushed a waiter’s heart when she turned up her nose at a hot dog on a baguette with a delicious gratin on top and ate nothing but crepes and nutella from street vendors for more than a week. In the Louvre, she used her innate radar to tear through the galleries and stand transfixed in front of the Mona Lisa. Six years later, she returned to France for a two week company sponsored exchange program. When I picked her and our French student up at the airport, she told me, “Mom, learning French in France is much harder than it is in school.” Then she turned back to our French student and spoke to her in what sounded to me like near fluent French.
Someday, I hope to go to France with the other child, the one who lives to eat. Ahhh, I can almost taste the fois gras.
My French colleagues on both sides of the Atlantic were accommodating of our American inability to learn their language. One in the Paris facility told me that he went home with a headache on the days we came to the site. I liked them. They weren’t afraid of arguing, that’s for sure. American companies don’t like it when coworkers argue. They would prefer to hire people who have all the social skills of a kindergarten teacher and who swallow their anger rather than confronting a problem and trying to solve it by strenuous debate and a lot of “Non!, Non!, Non!”
They also aren’t afraid of enjoying their lives, taking vacations, spending time with their families and drinking wine at lunch.
When I think of Paris, I think of the light. There are certain places on the earth where land, sea and sky converge to change the light and in Paris, the light seems slightly grey to me. Sometimes, a little silvery grey. It’s like very old light or memory of light. Maybe that comes from the stone facades of the buildings or the clouds. It softens and ages the city. It has seen a lot of things, some of them beautiful and some harsh and devastating.
One of my French colleagues told me that Americans are too optimistic. We have an unreasonable expectation that things will work out in the end. We smile too much. I think she is right. The Great Recession has been incredibly hard on some of us and there is a lot of cruelty in the good ol’ US of A. When I was laid off in 2011, many readers tried to make it sound like a new opportunity. They told me another job would come, don’t you worry, and it would use talents I never knew I had. And I know they meant well, but, I’m here to tell you that bad stuff does happen. It’s the way you respond to it that makes the difference. I just kept on keeping on and had to block out every other distraction to get through the many hundreds of days in order to get a new job that gave me a modest return to the satisfaction I had before I was laid off. But I have learned that economic security in America is pretty much a fiction compared to what the French have.
And we were taken completely by surprise when 9/11 happened. We had this incredibly naive notion that terrorism would never happen here. We are separated from the rest of the world by two oceans. So when it did happen here, it tore a hole in the fabric of that optimistic identity we had and we overreacted to patch it up. And we opened ourselves up to very opportunistic and malicious people who would use psychological manipulation of our fear to lock us in to bad economics, meanness and callousness towards one another.
France, on the other hand, has always been vulnerable. It sits in the middle of Europe and has been used as a highway for the English, Germans, Spanish, Moors. Vikings, princes and their armies have tramped their muddy boots through its fertile plains for millennia, raping and pillaging. It fought the Romans for a couple of centuries and drove off the early Muslim invasion in the 8th century. The 14th century was pretty awful for France, as told by Barbara Tuchman in her book A Distant Mirror. Nothing but disease famine and war for almost 100 years. Then there were the religious wars, St. Bartholemew’s Massacre, and the Revolution, followed by two world wars and a humiliating occupation. The French have survived it, probably because they understand better than we do that bad stuff happens. They survive it, remember their friends, learn to enjoy their lives again and get on with it.
With World War II fading as a distant memory, the French are well fed and healthy, and the survival instinct may be more tested this time. I can almost hear the meetings that Rupert Murdoch’s empire is having, trying to figure out a way to get inside the minds of the terrified Parisians and give the right wing more of a foothold in a country that has stubbornly refused to eat its poisoned economically conservative mushrooms.
While a Gallic shrug is not the right response to current events, it might be the ability of the French to see the grey that will save them.
That and a vigorous and deadly hit back at ISIS.