Where I try to define where is home but get side-tracked by identity and Charlie

{Sometimes things just need to be vented out. I thought I was doing something but then these things just caught up with me. And I had to push till the end of it, through the tears that were burning my eyes and in spite of the final roughness of this piece of writing. Emotions took over me, emotions that I thought I now had in control. I’m on my way back from a long travel that took me to France and to other places I’ve called home at some point of (my) history. A trip that I thought would help me solve some of the “home equation” and that allowed face to face discussions of the painful memories with my friends who had been in my thoughts and my Facebook messenger the previous year and a half (more than ever before), which is what I probably anticipated the most for my healing process. But considering the amount of crying I went through during the writing of the second part of this, I still have a lot of healing left to do.}
{there is a lot going on in the links. Things that I didn’t want to spell out for concision, or because it hurt too much}
Is home the same thing as where one comes from?

In the many years and places I have lived outside of my birthplace, I have often heard questions such as “when are you going back home?” or “don’t you miss home too much?” and it has always seemed unexpected of me to call the place where my actual home is, “home”. I mean, yes I come from France. But does that prevent the house where I live in another country from being where I feel at home? If I’m correct about the original English meaning of the word, that’s really what it means: the place where I sleep and eat and shower and relax and have friends over, and cook and do my washing and so much more, is home. Where else in the world could home be, I ask you?

I have lived in Tonga for 3.5 years, most of that time in the same house with the same landlords and neighbours and the same Chinese falekoloa (local grocer) around the corner. I had no obligation to stay in that house at all or even in the country after the initial 2 years I had come for, and if I didn’t feel like this was home, I would not have stayed. As I have done all my adult life. But I chose to remain in Tonga because I feel at home in Tonga. Now, would I like the falekoloa to be stocked with cheese is an entire other question.

Not exactly my hood, but close enough

Do all French people miss cheese when they are not in France? I don’t think so. Some don’t even like it. I personally don’t smoke, don’t like wine and don’t drink black coffee and it doesn’t make me any less French – a whole lot less stereotypical to foreigners, yes. I don’t really miss cheese either. Not that I’m not going to gorge on it as soon as an occasion arises, but I don’t miss it daily. Not having cheese in your fridge comes with the choice of living overseas. Would I love it if brie was readily available in Tonga and at a decent price? YES! Would I feel offended if it were a small, tasteless, pasteurized, chewy dairy product from Australia/ New Zealand and presented to me as a French product? Yes!

Can cheese be part of one’s identity?

I grew up in the region known as Brie, that is a historic region, not an administrative one, just east of Paris. So I suppose I know what brie is, or are, as there are several types referred to by the name of each a city of the Brie region.

Brie de Meaux on the right, de Melun on the left, and some more local cheeses

The most common type is the Meaux one. One cheese weighs 3.5kg. Not 200gr. I ranted like never before a few months ago, about usurper brie. I had spent that week at the Pacific Arts Association symposium and the Maoriland international Film Festival, met amazing artists, academics, defenders of their own cultures, and activists. Some of the interventions and films made me question where I stood. Some interactions brought up my “difference”, including a very interesting discussion with a friends about how I tend to seek eye contact a lot (I was raised told that not looking at someone when they talk to me is a sign of terrible disrespect, but I understand now it can be felt by others as a sign of intimidation), and exchanging greetings with strangers who wanted to know if la bise is a real thing. It is!

My brie rant was all about how disrespectful to my culture I feel it is to call brie something that only vaguely resembles the product that bears the name of the place where I grew up, a product I love and that pertains entirely to the notion of French gastronomy. To some extend, I wondered if the capitalisation on a well known product from France couldn’t be qualified as cultural appropriation, especially since the “French gastronomic meal” has been added to the UNESCO list of intangible heritage. The cheese doesn’t make the meal, but the meal couldn’t be gastronomic without the cheese. And only cheese that is alive can qualify there. Even pasteurized, our cheese still makes it to keep a degree of life. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, you are not French, and haven’t been heavily exposed to our culture, and that’s totally alright. Overall this rant brought me to all the more or less dignifying stereotypes about all things French, that are attractive, deluxe, glamour and sound oh so adorable (Or not. Don’t get me started on a reality check)

So what makes me more French: eating cheese or knowing the difference between cheese that is alive and “cheese” that is not? It is not about being snobbish, it is about what I am used to, what I perceive as cheese and appreciate about cheese. Have years of life in other countries changed anything to my perception and appreciation of cheese?

All from la Brie, none is brie though – but very alive, especially visible in the coulommiers in between a soumaintrain and a chevru

No. And cheese is nothing but an example of all the many elements that make me a French woman. Nothing can alter that.

And this is what years of living in other countries have taught me: I am French.

I am very French. Deeply French. Rooted in France. Does that mean I cannot add any other cultural bagage to it? Of course I can and I have over the years. Does it mean I have changed the way I think? No: I was taught to think in a critical, reflective way and I am grateful of being French for that. Does it mean I only keep French elements of reflection or references when thinking? Of course not, that would be such a waste of all that have enriched my life experience in precious ways: many first hand cultural experiences, so many encounters, so much knowledge that couldn’t have come to me if I had stayed where I grew up. For one, I wouldn’t be able to understand the cultures I have lived in,  behave accordingly and respect them. And I wouldn’t be able to realise what it means to be French as opposed to not French.

Had I not left France, I would anyway have been one of the millions left in unbearable pain on the 7th of last January. But would I have known what was so French in the symbolic figures that had been stamped, shattered, torn, spat at; killed? Or did my distance with French culture help me recognise it in the midst of the whirlpool of emotions that were seizing all of us? Didn’t the questions of the countless non-French friends trying to understand what happened help make my understanding easier? And my near absolute isolation (physically, from other French) make the pain more acute, the emotions more deafening, the constant reminding more insufferable? Did having to explain historic French anti-semitism over and over the next few days help me recover? Do I need to answer my rhetorical questions?

I can’t find the words to explain how important this cartoon is
Were those the worst days of my life? I am tempted to say yes.

The only 3 other French persons living on the island left hours after we found out. One of them for good. The silence was total on our way to the airport, only interrupted with occasional rushed utterances of pain, of inability to understand, of worry, and sobs. None of those seemed directed at the departure of a dear friend, not even her own. We were in shock. And then I was alone on the island, with an injured leg and hand after a bicycle accident the previous day (with time difference, I left the hospital when the shooters were arriving at Charlie Hebdo) and I couldn’t leave my home. My home, where my friends and my then boyfriend came to check on me, to ask me their questions, to try and support me, to just have a tea and a chat, like nothing happened, who even came to cook the food I had bought before my bicycle accident.

But I wanted to be in Paris, I wanted to be with my people to say I was not afraid. I was indeed not afraid: I was destroyed, along with my beliefs in the values of the Republic, among which most of all education to critical thinking, and my memories of growing up with just the same stuff (public school, diversity of friends, tv shows, games, suburbs…) as the guys who had done that. It would take a lot of SuperGlue to fix that, the impossibility to understand that they could have been my classmates and they had done that, the horrifying thought that maybe some of my old classmates were sympathising with them and that. I was crying all the time, and frenetically checking Facebook for more of what rubbing in the pain I could find, and most importantly what support I could find from my friends who are equally French, lefties and live out of the country. Who were going through the same hell as me. The guts squeezed when checking the news as I woke up every morning, worried there would be more of this madness. And there was, twice over the next few days. The tears I disguised as being a result of the pain when someone who didn’t know I was French saw me in my weakest moments, when even at the hospital I couldn’t hold it in when I went for bandages.

No matter my criticism of my country, of its politics, of its people, of its this or that, I was in the worst of the worst pains over what had been done to it, to us, to me. At least, that’s what I thought.

Because then came November.

I was still on my little island in the middle of the ocean. I had regained a degree of “life as before” and I didn’t quite feel like I needed the collective mourning in France anymore. I don’t remember how I ended up having pizza very late that Saturday with some of the American volunteers. At Marco’s, my safe haven. The only place that makes me feel like Europe when I am homesick of that home. I hadn’t been on the internet that day. It’s rare. One of the girls checked something on her phone and after a while she told me “there’s been shootings in France”. I thought it must be a drug related thing, and asked if that had happened in Marseille. Cliché reaction. She said no, and it didn’t seem drug related and I should have a look at her phone.

The article was several hours old, and the count was still low (my hands are shaking when writing this, as if any body count could be “low”). I seized my phone, opened the app of my newspaper -I couldn’t face Facebook just yet- and I remember feeling the blood leave my limbs, replaced by lead, tetany taking over my body, with only my right thumb and my eyes left working. And I was reading, and grasping that had I been at home I could very

the t-shirt of the man ahead of my friend and me at the bbq on my first night in NOLA this August, that made me feel awfully teary.

well be dead doing one of the things I like most: attending a concert. I thought of my friends who could very well have been at this concert, and of those who live or go out in the areas where the shootings had occurred and it was way too much too handle and all these people had been doing normal, social, nice, Friday night things and they were dead and I couldn’t breathe anymore so I ran out of the building only to lean on its outside wall, panicking over the decision I had to make as to which friend to call first, only to realise that with time difference it was 2 am and I really hoped they were fast asleep in their homes and only then did I open Facebook and saw that thanks to their safety check I could gasp for some air again when it hit me that I hadn’t breathed for so long and I was about to faint and some of the friends I was imagining covered in blood had told us all through Facebook that they were SAFE.

My only close friend among the Americans came out to check on me, and I remember him holding my arm. That gave me something to attach me back to the reality around me. I won’t go into the individual details, but in short, I am the luckiest Parisian with my kind of tastes because none of my friends were any of these places, although it was a close call for some of them who were fortunate enough to be broke or to be stuck with a family dinner that couldn’t be moved to another date, or or or, because many of my friends almost were there but something happened and they were not. I knew my family’s habits and did not worry for them: not their neighbourhood, not their music scene. But when I recovered from the initial shock I couldn’t help but freak out at the idea of them getting hurt in the public transportations or at their workplace if more attacks happened in the following days. I was terrorised, which is pretty much what terrorism is all about.

I think I experienced fear, real fear, for the first time.

It was the first time safety was the priority in my thought processing. It was the first time I wanted my loved ones to be safe; not because I normally wish them ill but because I had never thought they could not be safe in France.

I spent that evening with my close friends at their home. He wanted to understand why so many people were outside the restaurants, and I had to explain that in good weather, we will all

people chilling on a nice summer night by Canal St Martin

be found on the terraces. That I miss terraces in Tonga, even though I understand why they are not a thing there. I also explained socialising the French way: going out for a drink, for an eat, for some music, for a movie, to support a team… and how all the people who had died were just being normal French people, or foreigners enjoying the French lifestyle, doing normal things. She was asking if my family would be safe -the biggest relief came when I saw that Disneyland had taken the unprecedented decision to close for 4 days. Where my sister works, and that sounded like a great potential target, now they were attacking regular people doing regular things. Much unlike in January, when they had attacked symbols.

I was looking at their one month old baby girl, that I love beyond good sense since the moment I first saw her at the hospital and I wanted her to be happy, healthy, untroubled, safe and I was glad she was Tongan, because Tonga is safe, or at least feels safe and I was feeling unfairly safe on my little island home in the middle of the South Pacific that no terrorist would know where to place on a map while my people were dying in my first home, the one where my main roots are and where I could have been doing all the normal things I love doing that the people of the ever-growing body count of that night had been doing and I hated being selfishly safe. But I was looking at this beautiful baby who shares a name with the symbol of the French Republic and thinking how I wished her unintentional namesake could be just as safe as her. That made me cry more. Actually, when she was born I found her so beautiful, so innocent, so precious, and when my friends told me her name and Maryanne was a part of it, I thought she looked like what I needed to see in my still broken country, and I wished her baby perfection could should would somehow transfer to the French Marianne.

Maryanne’s perfect feet protect Tonga’s famous landmark, Ha’amonga a Maui

I still haven’t answered the question as to where home is. I’ll do that once this is out of the way. The pain. The certainty I now hold that I am French, no matter where home is or is not -and not some “citizen of the world”, as some people like to describe themselves. And that I am a Parisian, if the November events retelling hadn’t made it clear yet (as I grew up 30km east of Paris in la Brie, but my 100% Parisian parents won’t let me discard our birthplace in my identity building, I may hold double citizenship). I’ll just add towards that idea that when a truck was used to kill 84 after the fireworks in Nice, as much as I was angry, baffled by so much barbary on the national holiday at the moment when the French indulge on our favourite outdoors community get-together activity (fireworks admiring on the 14th of July), and the many tourists with us, especially in this southern city, I didn’t experience fear. I only know 2 persons there, and quickly gathered the info that they were ok. Later, when a Catholic priest was killed in front of two elderly parishioners and three nuns in a village in Normandy, I thought you had to be a sore loser devoid of common sense to resort to attacking an institution that is near meaningless to most of the population of the country, especially in regards to the symbols and strong lifestyle elements that had been targeted in months and weeks prior. I was on the way to being blasé. How Parisian of me.

Paris, 15 July 2016. Bursting terraces. Because we are alive.

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