Monday, September 11, 2006


September 11, 2006

I was hurrying to class this morning when one of my colleagues (the syndicaliste, I’m not getting names yet) appeared at my elbow. He asked me if it was emotional for me this day. It was obvious that he was inquiring in a way that was much more than perfunctory; indeed, he seemed almost anxious on my behalf. It took me a second to grasp that he was referring to 9/11. I was in a hurry, and we were in a crowded hallway, so it was tempting to simply nod yes, but instead I admitted to him that until that very moment I hadn’t realized that it was in fact the 11th. He seemed a little surprised – intrigued not shocked - but it was clear, I think to both of us, that there was much more to be said about the matter, some other time.

As I made my way to my room, I backtracked mentally to the drive I’d taken to work that morning. I realized that the morning French radio commentary had been all about subjects related to 9/11. One commentator had talked about the immediate and spontaneous expressions of solidarity with the American people that had occurred in France and how all that had dissipated in the ensuing months due to what he characterized as the arrogance of American foreign policy. I had been listening to all of this while driving to work early in the morning through a light rain. Somehow I had managed to understand the gist of what was being said by the radio pundits without realizing why they were talking about it this particular morning.

My colleague’s question snapped me out of a reverie. It was without a doubt my identity as an American that had prompted him to risk the inquiry. I had not only forgotten about the anniversary of 9/11, I been unconscious of my americanness for a time. That is not to say that I had blended into French culture; rather, I had become profoundly distracted by the effort it takes to even try. Immersing oneself in a culture and a new job is not unlike entering a hermetically sealed environment. Then every once in awhile something pricks the bubble and you wake up to find one foot here and the other wobbling about that other world you used to live in.

Twenty years ago, nearly to the day, I was living in Poitiers, France striving to learn French without having had even the slightest language training. I remember submerging myself in the project. I studied signs, posters, menus; I made countless notes to myself; I made lists or words which I then braided into sentences; I invented simplistic stories; I even stole into the Facultés des Lettres twice every week to listen to an aging and acerbic history professor intone drearily about the causes of World Wars I and II (everyone else was falling asleep but I loved him because I could make out some of his words). My own progress was slow, it seemed to me, but my immersion (and to an extent my isolation) was so thorough it effaced any external landmarks by which I might measure progress or the lack. I was beguiled almost night and day by my own toils.

And then one day while walking through the city square of Poitiers, I found myself in front of a tabac transfixed by a photograph in the front page of a French newspaper. It was an arresting image, a giant plume of white smoke arcing across a blue sky down towards earth. The enormous headline read, “LA REVE EN FUMEE!” For a moment I thought the reason that I was so captured by this display was the fact I had understood the text of the headline instantaneously (The Dream Up In Smoke), the kind of linguistic success I was craving those days; the truth, however, revealed itself to me a moment later when I realized that what I was looking at was distinctly and disturbingly American news. It was the Challenger disaster. Beneath the fold of the paper were the photos of the seven crew members, all of them poster material for the American melting pot, all of them smiling forthrightly beneath the plume of their recent immolation. I was only barely aware that they had even been about to embark on this launch. My self imposed linguistic exile had marginalized me at least to that extent from my native culture.

It is much different for me now 20 years later. I have resources now that were unavailable to me then. I speak, read, and write French well enough. I have a mate with whom I share all that and much more. I have two small children with me whose proper life trajectories have lifted my eyes and my spirits far beyond the meager horizons I ever spied on my own two decades ago. I have a job here and colleagues who in their own way look in on me. And there are the technological accoutrements: mobile phones, email, internet, Skype, and this blog. In a sense I’m equipped to see and hear and feel so much more than I ever was…then this morning came and along with it the disconcerting sensation that maybe I’ve been sleepwalking.



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