French living, American life and universal tragedy
Like everyone else, the only word I can find to describe the past six days is "surreal."
Perfect strangers tap my shoulder on the Metro and tell me they are praying for my country. Waiters in cafes ask if I've heard from my family and friends back home. My professors begin class by trying to express in crude English (something French professors never do) their country's sympathy for and solidarity with our suffering.
When I call home, all anyone talks about are the bombings and the latest news. But thousands of miles away, I can't escape it either.
I walk to school and every news kiosk I pass is plastered with the same horrible pictures of the World Trade Center's last few minutes. I go sight-seeing, trying to be a tourist, and all I see are flags at half-mast. I go to Mass and every church has notices on the doors about prayer services for the victims and perpetual adoration to pray for peace. I visit museums, only to be patted down and have my bag searched before I can enter.
Headlines scream, "Apocalypse" and "The New War." And my French vocabulary is now enriched with words like "terrorist," "bombing" and "plane crash."
Being far away at a time like this is difficult. I want to define myself as an American, to proclaim proudly that if you mess with my country, we'll make you regret it, make no mistake. But at the same time, I feel unsafe in my own skin. I try not to speak in English on the streets and I avoid touristy places where Americans are known to gather. I am trying to be more American and more French at the same time.
Though Europe was not the direct victim of last week's attacks, the world has changed here too. Police with machine guns patrol every subway stop and trash bins are sealed over to prevent bombings. Everyone rushes home a little more quickly, hugs their purse a little tighter and watches where they go and what they say.
Europeans are feeling the same loss of innocence and security as Americans. The French are very much on edge, especially with the latest news that the American embassy in Paris might have been a target for another thwarted round of bombings. I listen to conversations on the street and bits of radio broadcasts, and as in America, it's all anyone talks about. The whole world is scared and wondering what will happen next.
But for me, that seems the only light in this sickening darkness is the real and comforting knowledge that we are all in this together. Calling last Tuesday's atrocities "crimes against humanity" is not simply rhetoric; those terrorists robbed us all of the essential right to live in peace and security.
When French President Jacques Chirac, Russian President Vladimir Putin and British Prime Minister Tony Blair rushed to voice their support for the US, their people followed right behind. The outpouring of support and sympathy I have witnessed in this country in the last week has amazed me. Newspapers and homilies alike refer to Americans as "our brothers and sisters" and call upon those here to help in any way they can.
There are few sources of comfort in such an uncertain and angry time, but the support of our allies world-wide was best summed up for me in the simple words of a professor who barely speaks our language: "It is like, when America weeps, we all weep. Because you who are so strong, when you are wounded, we all fear. So, we show our support to you, at this unthinkable thing that has come to pass."
The three minutes of silence respected across Europe at noon on Friday may have been just a blip in many accounts of the day of mourning, but here it was an astounding event. Cash registers stopped ringing and buses stopped in the streets — the day literally stood still while people closed their eyes in prayer. Far from a cheesy, "We Are The World" sentimentality, last Tuesday taught me that Americans are not alone in this fight against terrorism, that across the globe we are united by our very humanity.
Laura Kelly is a junior who hopes to major in French and English. She has been laughing at her own dumb mistakes for several weeks and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. French Connection will appear every Monday in Scene. The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.
All Scene Stories for Monday, September 17, 2001