Chez Soi

Adventures of a Year Abroad

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Safe, but…

uk telegraph taxi-paris_2694943kI was in a cigarette-scented cab from CDG, window opened slightly for relief, coming home from a Zurich SDN meetup when I heard. Sirens all around us made the driver call someone (and roll up my window as he listened) and then he shared…in French that I only partially understood that 3 explosions had occurred. Wife and kiddo were at Bond movie nowhere near the action but not home when I arrived… which felt weird but I was pretty sure they were safe. They texted about 20 mins later.  I waited with a box of Sprüngli chocolates, a Swiss peace offering for missing family movie night.

Instant comparisons to Charlie Hebdo, but this is different in approach and scale. And response.  Yesterday morning we went to Bon Marche high-end department store to exchange something.  We arrived about 11:40, just in time to hear a (loud, repeated, bilingual) announcement that the store would close at noon “due to the events of last night.”  We left the store and walked back home, very irritable, snapping at each other for minor things.

I think outdoor markets are all closed as well, though grocery stores seem open. We’ve read that the American Church in Paris will hold services this morning, probably with heavy attendance in terms of both congregation and security detail.  Kiddo’s school sent an email: school schedule will hold steady, though excursions cancelled and no parking or gathering near entrance, same as post-Charlie.

We have this contrary feeling of wanting to hunker down inside, and also wanting to get out and burn off pent up energy somehow.  I want to go for a long run, justifiable as I’m signed up for Paris Marathon in April (which of course now reminds me of Boston’s event).  Indeed, I would be running instead of typing but phone (with running app) wasn’t charged, and I’m missing a sock but don’t want to disturb the sleepers.  That means I’ll probably not run till after church.

Gut reactions are all over.  I was already stressing a bit over unrelated news from a pre-flight phone call.  Now in the back of my mind the unrelated news is all tangled with emotional reaction to the violence. On the other side, there is this rush of empathy for victims and their families. I don’t yet know if all my colleagues in Paris are safe. Nilofer found the #PortesOuvertes hashtag on Twitter and for a while in the wee hours post-event we thought we would be hosting a stranded friend-of-friend college student. Went to sleep expecting to be awoken by the doorbell, but it turned out she managed to get unstranded somehow.

I feel multiple urges… First is to hug, to physically embrace, all the diverse citizens of Paris.  It’s a mental image of tolerance and solidarity.  Next is revenge against the brainless intolerance of extremism, wholehearted support for all-out campaign to squash them.  Plus a nagging thought that somehow my personal petro dollars are funding them.  And of course that visceral need for the 10 (or 12?) mile run mentioned earlier.

Usually I like to find a clever little finish to a blog post.  Nothing comes to mind.

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Latest chart-topper in Paris neighborhood tooth rattling hit parade

We’ve been here 1Paris tooth rattling6 months now.  The blogging dry spell signals a lack of inspiration.  Just this morning I got inspired.  How?  Well, for 15 of our 16 months, the building across the street was being renovated, including installation of an underground parking garage.  (It seems more people own cars now than when the building was first put up in the 1890’s.)  Lots o’ jackhammering, etc.  Always some new and delightful way to make the entire apartment shudder and shake.

But it finally ended last month!  Yay!  Just at the end we were spooked by an unrelated street project wherein the GdF was replacing the local gas pipelines (lingering evidence visible in the dark patches in the sidewalk across the way).  But that was pretty short-lived, a week or less, and actually finished before the apartment project.  You might just be able to imagine our collective sigh of relief as we began to grasp that we might be done with the daily drumbeat of noise.

How naive!

This morning something new…  There was a bit of activity this morning with the little green separator walls this morning, I noticed when returning from walking Kiddo to school.  I actually thought “Hey, this looks like good news… maybe they will be removing those yellow plastic parking-blocker posts (one is just visible in bottom of the photo) from the street… The last vestige of the building renovation is disappearing!”  Uh, no. Just as I began a phone call, the building shuddered when an extra jumbo machine punched a hole in the sidewalk.  No idea what they are up to (unlike the GdF project, there were no signs posted in advance), but whatever it is requires the removal of a truckload of earth.

The upside: this week mom is in San Francisco area for a business meeting.  Timing of the trip seemed annoying for various reasons, but since she managed to miss out on the latest rock-busting concert on our doorstep, maybe it was a blessing in disguise?  It depends, of course… Will they finish before she gets back?  Fear not!  A new neighborhood effort aimed at cracking the earth’s crust or rerouting the Seine will be along soon!

This is probably not specific to Paris, just life in a big city.  Nevertheless, I’m just a wee bit wistful for our quiet suburban home in California.  On the other hand, my fresh new cynicism tells me to stop romanticizing things… No doubt the dilapidated house next door in California will undergo scraping and reconstruction the day we move back home.  And here in Paris, this sidewalk root canal will be over soon. I resolve to appreciate quiet days one at a time.


Glorious Sunday in Paris

Yesterday ended up being a gorgeous May Sunday in Paris!  This is the kind of day that we were imagining when we signed up for this adventure.Glorious Sunday in Paris

It didn’t start out that way, bucketing down rain in the early morning.  But I managed to get in a 15km run, then the sun came out and we all walked to the library, then took a moment to “prends une verre” at a café on Avenue de la Bourdonnais.

I didn’t think about a blog post until looking out our bedroom window, so that’s where I snagged the photo.

This is my first post on the blog.  It was always expect that kiddo and Mom would do most of the content, but I had always intended to write a few posts.  I half-started about 5 posts on practical / logistical themes, but never finished them… Hopefully breaking the ice here will open the door for more.  And better to break the ice with a (hopefully) inspiring post rather than start with nuts and bolts, hey?

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On Charlie Hebdo, et al

I’ve been wanting to write about the Charlie Hebdo thing ever since it happened, but every time I go to organize my thoughts, they kind of squirm away. So, fine, disorganized it will be then…

I remember where I was sitting when we learned of the news. It felt like the whole cafe had their phone buzz at the same time. I was sitting with Curt at a coffee shop (Cafe Loustic) in the 2nd arrondisement, with our new friend Rahaf. I remember what she said, and how we felt, and how good the dirty chai was. We had just finished sharing with her that we’d be staying for another year. We were a little excited, a little hopeful. And then it felt like *our* city was being attacked. That feeling as we were going to the metro to get our kiddo, that the gunmen were still at large, somewhere near us. Maybe just around that corner.

That night we learned that the person who had let the gunmen into the building had just returned from picking up her kiddo, and at gunpoint had to decide to save her child or her colleagues. We did a post on FB so friends would know we were okay. We didn’t go out that night, but had a quiet evening watching it online. This is a picture from that night taken by Jessie Morgan (Rahaf’s husband and photographer/ videographer extraordinaire). Thru them, we felt we were there.


The next day, Curt and I went to the National Assembly building which is super close to where we live, to listen to the church bells ring at noon. This was the fifth time in national history that the flag had been lowered to half-mast. 3 times before for the death of dignitaries, once on 9/11 and then for this.
That night, we picked up Kiddo from school and took the 15 minute metro ride to the Place de La Republique. People were humming at times, chanting at others. It was just a bunch of people, self-organized, not the official march that would happen on Sunday. I remember one couple very solemnly holding some candles. We held up our pencils. When the crowd was singing together, I looked down to see that kiddo knew all the words. I later came to find out that what he and everyone else was singing was the national anthem, La Marseillaise. How did you know the words, I asked him? He just shrugged his shoulders, with a “how do you not” kind of look. [Whatever can be said of this experience of living abroad, I will say that this was a moment I’ll never forget. He was of this place in that moment.]
We walked around, to some historic sights like the Arc de Triomphe (which by the way, has a depiction of La Marseillaise on it). (that’s what that decoration is on each side…) and it said, “Paris est Charlie”. (Paris is Charlie)
On Friday, two days after the attack, the city seemed threatened with surround-sound sirens. I couldn’t concentrate. And then our local church in the neighborhood just kept ringing the bells. I think they were saying “it’s going to be okay”. At least that’s what I took it to mean. Friends at the American Church had to evacuate the building, as did International schools since htey were considered targets. Fear filled the city in a way that’s hard to describe now. Since I could concentrate, I spent the day online. On that day, a friend I had met through my Harvard Business Review writing posted on his twitter feed:
Liberté is wounded, but it will survive. Egalité has long been struggling. But it’s Fraternité we must look after most now. – gianpiero petriglieri
He got something like a 100 retweets in a few minutes. It seemed to capture the sentiment. The Saturday version of the NYT was online with a weird op-ed running the NYT by Marine LaPen, a French politician, who said that we have to clamp down on immigration. Which made me wonder if I had misunderstood the situation, because these were not immigrants. These were french-raised people. That reminded me of the 9/11 moments of confusion, where terror propaganda passes for truth. I was struck by how much France struggles with religious differences. I searched around for pieces to understand the issues. This one, written by Nabil Wakin tried to explain the shootings to his “american friends”. The big thing there is that “free speech” is a broadly defined term by every culture. The other broad observation, was that people wanted to pin this on a “bad guy, and how universal that sentiment is around the world.
On that Friday, it came to pass that a young man helped a great deal to safety in a Jewish grocery store. He later became a citizen of France, in thanks. The fact that he was muslim, an immigrant, he became a symbol of hope. That’s kinda cool but also sad that it was needed. The eulogy delivered by brother of one of the shot police officers reminded us of a fuller truth. I had the clear idea that it was the fact that this was *muslim* driven actions that were being discussed, than terrorism. It struck me more than ever that terrorism comes in all shapes and sizes, from ISIS to Ferguson to Hebdo. Across religions, across colors.
There’s a big push to anti-immigration going on from what I can catch in LeMonde. France has already banned the burka from public places, and its treatment of their immigrant population has long been a blot on its reputation — like slavery is in the US. The explicitly anti-immigrant party, the National Front, gained 25% of the vote in recent elections to the European Parliament, the potential for a step backwards in history is not-too-far.

I asked a lot of people what this means, for them. I mean, what did a march together mean or what does it mean to say #jesuischarlie. Some say that they are defending the rights to say what they want. Others feel it is to stand up for freedom. Otherwise, say it is to say we will not be divided. I learned a lot about the people not necessarily by each answer but by the multitude of answers. That is France, at this day. People did not feel that they had to say the same thing.

And yet I could see that the sentiment was different amongst those who are of Algerian decent. If you were cutting the data by that sort, you’d find a different result. In The Times Charles Bremner said, “the whole French establishment has been reluctant to acknowledge the residue of anger felt among a former colonised people. It denies the flaws in the doctrine of assimilation that requires the six million immigrants and their descendants to meld into a supposedly colour-blind national family.”

But even to see that some of this was optics. On Sunday, there was a big “manifestation” held in the same Place de La Republique. This time, would leaders were flying in. Again, the city full of sirens mostly to get people here and there. I stayed home because i was coming down with something (again) but the boys went. I watched on Twitter. And probably had a better view than the boys. Curt described how at some point, his group was halted and then moved and then all of a sudden some very well dressed people came and stood in front of them and there were photos. It’s weird to think that whole thing was so staged… but apparently it was. In The Daily Express Peter Hill said “can’t help thinking that the line of world leaders at the front of Sunday’s Paris demo was one giant selfie, a photo opportunity not to be missed by politicians shouting: ‘Look, we are with you – so vote for us.’”

On Twitter, people were taking jabs at that front line of politicians many of whom don’t believe in the definitions of free speech that were supposedly being celebrated that day. I read on Twitter that France jailed a 16yo for posting a cartoon, in fact literally a Hebdo cartoon w/the Muslim swapped for white guy. Oy.

In some ways I found the dissonance of ideas reassuring. The one thing I’ve learned of the French is they can have an opinion. And they are willing to discuss and debate and think rather than be punked into action.
I really don’t know all of this means, really. And so perhaps this post is not valuable. But I wanted to record what we experienced, with some of our memories still fresh before it fades away.
As much as we experienced it and it changed us in ways we can’t quite describe what it all means. Things of the heart can be that way sometimes.

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42 Reasons to Never Visit France


My friend Brian Keating sent this reminder of reasons not to visit France. Which reminds me of me last week. I was in NYC and Austin without the family, while my sister-in-law was visiting Paris. When I called home, I asked: did you show her the river, and the Notre Dame? Did you take her to Poilane, did you feed her a croissant, etc.

I love this place (there’s lots to love) and it’s good to share that which you love. Neri left today after what seemed like a low-key visit but I’m hoping she took a little bit of love home with her.