Our tree stayed up several days too long. It sagged to the point that some of the ornaments slipped their branches, like they couldn’t stand their January obsolescence any longer. We stayed home for Christmas this year, which for us is Dijon, a midsize town in eastern France, rather than fly back overseas to my parents in the US. Instead, we celebrated noël the traditional way, with mountainous trays of seafood and magnum bottles of Burgundy wine provided by my in-laws, native Dijonnais.
The holidays shaped up quiet and cozy, despite the tragic news: Two days before Christmas a man released from a mental hospital struck pedestrians with his van, injuring 13 people across several streets. It was concluded that he acted alone, and that his cries of “Allāhu Akbar” represented nothing more than the rantings of a singular lunatic. The story ended there with “What is the world coming to?” remaining the question without any answer.
It was the kind of incident that cracked a hairline fracture in the rationalization I’d recently offered myself about the safety of this city, and country on the whole, compared with the sprees and rampages I see breaking across US news. But the need to rationalize why I should call France home meant the presence of doubt, and that a dull ache to return to the land in which I’m still a citizen, and from where all my reference points still flow, was recurring. Perhaps, it was just the season. Or the holiday cards I regretted only penning with stock greetings to those I missed seeing in person for the chance to say more than All the best this year.
We sent these cards to French friends and family, too, those I do see on a regular basis. Since photo holiday cards are more of an American tradition than a French one, the recipients around here were genuinely touched by even the most routine well-wishes. One set of fellow parents, for instance, who are French-Portuguese-Algerian, thanked us profusely. They also recounted a story from the school before the break. Their daughter’s teacher had evidently informed other parents and faculty that their family was strict Islamist. She never asked these friends of ours, who practice no religion at all. Instead, she spread rumors about their leanings, assuming their Arabic last name and unwillingness to participate in an overnight class trip could only mean extremist. It all seemed so stupidly catty and obviously racist to me. If a similar story played out in the US, I would know how to respond. But here my reaction might be lacking a full appreciation of the cultural nuances involved. Our own daughter might have this elementary maitresse next year. Will this teacher be the kind of person I have to understand and tolerate? I don’t know if I want find out if she herself is merely an isolated incident, an anomaly of prejudice, and that not at all French schoolteachers are like this. I’m not sure I want to stick around to learn. It makes me want to halt this cross-cultural experiment I’m embarked on, and raise my family back where I belong.
School began again and I returned to the simpler concern of safety as my two daughters walked to school by themselves. I tried to forget murderous drivers. I estimated that free-floating misfortune had come and gone, bypassing us this winter. Still, I checked my impulse to hold my younger daughter’s hand to her classroom door, the way she no longer wants me to. I try not to be an overprotective father. I try not to exaggerate myself as an outsider or indulge any expat touchiness. I try not to presume anywhere else is any better. These are vague 2015 resolutions.
On Wednesday, Jan. 7, my daughters come home from the half school day unaccompanied and we eat lunch. After washing the dishes, I call my parents at their breakfast table in Pennsylvania.
“We just heard about Paris!” my mom says alarmed.
“Paris? What’s happening in Paris?” I respond, caught uniformed about my capital.
“You mean, you haven’t heard? A shooting. It’s all over the place here!”
I turn to the computer and call up the usual feeds. I see the headline “Attentat À Charlie Hebdo.”
A video of masked men with Kalashnikovs shooting an already downed police officer in the head is graphic and awful. Someone films as he cowers on a rooftop. Meanwhile, multiple staff members inside the offices of the satirical journal Charlie Hebdo are dead. A woman picking up her daughter from daycare is forced to let the terrorists into the building.
I try not to be an overprotective father. I try not to exaggerate myself as an outsider or indulge any expat touchiness. I try not to presume anywhere else is any better.
I go back to the phone.
“Oh God. This is bad.”
“I know it.”
“This will be bad,” I repeat for the future, continuing to absorb the giant headlines, embedded videos, and breaking alerts from the stillness of my apartment.
“What do you think will happen next?”
“I can’t believe I heard this first from you over there,” I say, as though it matters.
“This could be like 9/11. How do you think the French react?”
“I have no idea.”
After the call, the tragedy sets in. I know that people in every town and village across the country have entered a collective state of shock. Disbelief is less of a factor; upon hearing of the murders of these scatologically stubborn, button-pushing cartoonists, most French know instantly the motive without needing to hear the attackers proclaim “we have avenged the Prophet.”
That night we watch network news on TF1 with our daughters, a rare occurrence as we typically filter the tragedies and complexities around us, like we did the violence in Dijon over the holidays. At the top of the hour, President François Hollande speaks. He will be praised in the coming days for projecting strength, though I’m skeptical at that point, and see mostly someone who hasn’t yet settled on the right kind of tone.
It’s the demonstrators on the street who radiate an honest French cogency and courage. An older man at Paris’s Place de la République with a blown-up Charlie Hebdo cartoon tells a reporter, “I’m here for a free society and to affirm that those who seek to challenge it will find a democrat like me standing in their path.”
From there, the rest of the coverage is drowned out by our daughters begging for clarification on the specifics. We try to explain as accurately and briefly as possible. Before bedtime, we need to show them that the front door is dead-bolted and, for requested good measure, we double-check behind the curtains for ghosts.
Overnight, mosques and Middle Eastern restaurants in a number of French cities are attacked, windows broken and shots fired into the establishments. But I don’t see any first-hand examples of this in Dijon. I notice a bolstered air of goodwill and reawakened energy in everyday interactions. Though perhaps I’m only expecting to encounter this and therefore I’m reading more warmth into the greetings of neighbors or the smile of the baker around the corner. We’ve all expected the world to have changed since the day before. We’re attempting to react sanely to a renewed spectacular insanity. The simplest way to acknowledge and articulate this then is in the words JE SUIS CHARLIE scrawled on a slate on the bakery door, for instance. Or to stage peaceful demonstrations in the main square with a NOT AFRAID banner. Or to hold a minute of silence across the country at noon.
The mood is slightly different at a frequented kebab place where I get lunch. There, the man behind the counter, who is Moroccan, is no more or less gruff than he has been ever since I started years ago ordering the sandwich américain (no relation to anything any of us know). There is no Charlie sign or any other affirmation of his allegiance, unlike the Sikh taxi drivers in NYC festooning their cabs with American flags in 2001 to reassure riders and immigration services. The varied customers of this kebab place understand that the proprietors have nothing to do with terrorism, so why should they risk looking like they are protesting too much?
Meanwhile, around the world, sincere vigils are held in London, Madrid, New York, and other places, where tearful Parisians gathered to hold a candle when Ground Zero was somewhere else. But I’m especially surprised by the engagement of Americans. I haven’t heard this much collective talk about France since the freedom-fries scandal of aught 2. Even John Kerry is allowed to be seen speaking French again.
Like my parents being the first to inform me about these attacks, Americans seem to know as much, if not more of what’s happening where I am than I do. As tribute cartoons and opinions are shared on social networks, I hesitate to join in. I only know that I don’t want to be one more American who thinks he has a full grasp of these major foreign issues.
In a way that is apt for a nation so often enthralled by theory, the event is framed first and foremost as a war of ideas.
But what finally stops me from weighing in is that none of this is over.
On Friday, my wife travels to Paris. I urge her not to, but she planned this client meeting near the Champs-Élysées a month ago.
“I’m not going to cancel anything because of these idiots,” she says. “I’ll be home by dinner.”
My misgivings are confirmed at noon, when two hostage situations erupt, one with the two wanted terrorists near the airport and a surprise third gunmen at a kosher grocery store.
My wife is well-removed from both scenes, but the whole city is a cauldron of danger in my mind. When I reach her on the phone, she tells me everything’s OK and that people are freaking out. There’s been a false bomb scare on the Métro. Gendarmes with assault rifles are randomly searching tourists on the Champs-Elysée.
I carry around my helpless bundled nerves. I try to remind myself of the relative safety of our circumstances.
I give more private English lessons. One of my students is a retired math professor and a friend I’ve known and tutored now for years. He’s eager to discuss the still unfolding events. He wants to assure me that these attacks are different. He believes they represent much more than random terror—blowing up skyscrapers, trains, or hotels.
“This time,” he says, “they have targeted a very specific idea. They want to stop our free expression, our free thought.”
I nod in agreement. In a way that is apt for a nation so often enthralled by theory, the event is framed first and foremost as a war of ideas. The fervor in the reaction of the French populace then is to support a fundamental liberty but also to refuse to be goaded into fighting a war with guns. This adds a more profound vitality to the demonstrations and goes partway toward explaining the awakened vigor I sense around me. As we stand in the kitchen watching footage of the heavily armed gendarmes gathering outside the Jewish market in Paris, I want to skip ahead to the part where the well-argued abstraction wins out over everything else. I am rooting desperately for Voltaire and the enlightened ideas.
I also hold an expectation that my friend, who’s of Jewish descent but an avowed atheist, will comment on the Jewish community in Paris that we see on the screen. Our weekly conversations, always in English, often lead to spirited discussions of faith. I take the agnostic, former Presbyterian point of view, which leads me to sometimes inadvertently defend the value of religious belief. But today, with him, there’s no talk of religion.
“This looks like the same images I remember of Paris in the early ’60s, at the end of the war with Algeria,” he says instead.
Above all, I’m too distracted for comparisons or enlightenment as I wait for an update from my wife. We both agree to resume the English lesson the following week.
My daughters return home. Then, as the attackers are stopped and the hostages freed, I get a text: Ça y est! my wife writes. I’m on the train to Dijon.
For now, the very first part of this over. Within an hour, my wife is back, too. My tiny tribe is safe.
My only plans for the weekend are no unraveling of widespread disaster. I haven’t thought about anything else on the calendar. I’ve forgetten that I happen to turn 40 at midnight.
On Sunday, the day after my birthday, I’m more hungover than I’ve been in years. My milestone celebration went just appropriately excessive on booze and gros bisous. It’s all the excitement I can handle. In my bones, I can feel that the hedonism of the night before, while a thrill, is not as welcome as the relief of waking up to know I’m still here. I might have a headache, but look how I survived. I might be 40, but I’m still in one piece.
I’m glad to cross the threshold because the ramp-up to this unequivocal adult age was somehow more anxiety-inducing than its arrival. In the past year, I asked myself more often than I should have what my life’s actually amounted to and how much more I should be making of it. So, like a reverse Jack Benny, I’m elated to be anything else besides 39. I’m happy to pass over the hill. The view is better from its other side.
I know from experience that the immediate aftermath of a national tragedy is sometimes the easiest part.
But all the midlife mini-crises have been neutralized by the events of the past few days. I can be simply thankful for 40, where my state of affairs has been brought into sharper focus.
In the weeks to follow the French ideas will continue to be tested reassuringly through endless rounds of debate. There will be eloquent points made, if no immediate conclusions reached, on questions of liberté vs. securité. La Marseillaise will be spontaneously sung in the National Assembly even as conspiracy theories sprout, alleging the street footage of the terrorists shooting as fake. The idea of a French version of the Patriot Act will be floated and a controversial stand-up comedian will be brought to trial for expressing that he feels like one of the terrorists. At my daughters’ school, new security personnel will be present on the grounds and the entrance and exits will be more tightly controlled. Our friends will openly discuss with the offending teacher the fact that they are not Islamists and settle, for the moment, their misunderstandings. More demonstrations will amass. More isolated hostage incidents will appear in the news. I hope the French can avoid creating an unwieldy department of Homeland Security, forego enhanced interrogation techniques, not change the name of their landmark to the Liberté Tower, bypass releasing a hit song called “Where Were You When Heard About Charlie Hebdo?”
That afternoon, the nation puts on a display of what they do best: a march in solidarity. The Sunday manifestation in support of the country’s freedom is the largest Paris has ever seen. The same superlative occurs in Dijon. People fill the square and side streets around our apartment building with a sense of togetherness, with dignity, and with something the French only unveil when the situation truly calls for it: pride. But there is little actual flag-waving and precious few calls to a broader retaliation. It is patriotism that doesn’t need to proclaim the nation as the greatest on Earth. The people only need to prove that they have, and will, continue to march on in one piece.
It’s a deeper idea that I can connect to. Though I don’t know if I fully belong. Or if this is the first time that a half-hapless, half-lucky foreigner like me actually does. I know from experience that the immediate aftermath of a national tragedy is sometimes the easiest part. But I hope to stay here on this unconditional unity, concentrated on the highest common denominator.
In this new year and new personal decade, I will probably make changes. I might even grow. But my one overwhelming desire on this day is that, on this present ideal and in this old country, I want only to stay.