The kiss

Le baiserYou must remember this, a kiss is just a kiss…unless it happens to be a man on the street spontaneously embracing a member of the French national police.

It was a modern take on the famous photo by photographer Robert Doisneau, Le Baiser de l’Hôtel de Ville.

It felt more like a scene from New York than Paris – the French don’t often break ranks in public displays of feeling. But as France buried its victims last week, including three police officers, there was a lot of love for les forces de l’ordre.

The police are a fixture of life on the streets of Paris: they’re often seen escorting VIPs on motorcycles, directing traffic, controlling crowds during the frequent demonstrations. And they are often criticized for unfair fines, excessive violence, coming down too hard on minorities.

But this day was different. Off-duty police officers were marching in mourning for their own tragic losses: Clarissa, the young policewoman killed in Montrouge by Amedy Coulibaly, Franck, the officer who acted as a body guard for Charlie Hebdo editor-in-chief Charb, and Ahmed, a Muslim bicycle cop gunned down in cold blood by the Kouachi brothers as they fled.

During the historic Marche Républicaine last week, as 3.5 million people took to the streets all over France and 50 world leaders joined arms against terrorism in Paris, people weren’t looking at the police in fear, but to salute them. They applauded the snipers stationed on top of the buildings along the Avenue de la République.

One gentleman in the crowd was so overcome with goodwill towards the CRS – the riot control forces of the French national police – that he asked if it was okay to embrace one of its officers. The officer hesitated, then gave in as the crowd urged them on. It was captured by French TV crews and became one of the scenes from that day that stole the hearts of viewers across the country.

As I’ve posted before, I’m certainly no fan of men with guns. But I have to confess to feeling a certain admiration for les gardiens de la paix, as the French national police are known. They managed to take out all three terrorists and get the hostages out of that supermarket with no further loss of innocent life.

That’s deserving of a kiss.

Find the entrance

Entree_LyonAfter my post about getting lost, I thought I’d share another little challenge of finding one’s way in France.

There is a little game we play in this country. I call it, ‘Find the entrance’.

I discovered this when I arrived in Paris in the 1980s during the midst of a terrorist wave. The main entrances to many public buildings were barricaded by police, with access strictly controlled through a side door. The Alliance Française was one of these high-profile buildings, a hotbed of foreign nationals plotting to conjugate French verbs. I learned to never assume the front door was the entrance, and to always carry proof of identity.

When we moved to Lyon some years later, the plot thickened. Lyon is known as a secretive city and filled with many very old and winding streets including the famous ‘traboules‘. How well I remember going for my first prenatal appointment at Hôtel Dieu in Lyon. (The hospital has since closed and is undergoing renovations to be rebirthed as a luxury hotel and shopping complex). It felt oddly reassuring to be giving birth in such a historic place, always assuming that the medical inner workings were a bit more modern than the exterior.

Hotel DieuThe magnificent Baroque façade of this 17th century building on the Rhône river took up several city blocks. I walked the entire length of it without finding the entrance. Twice. There was a driveway labelled ‘Urgences’ but that seemed to be reserved for ambulances (although later, when my daughter was born, we used that entrance to access the maternity department). There were several large and looming doorways with rounded arches that were closed and without handles. Finally, on my third approach, I noticed a discreet sign saying ‘Entrées hôpital de jour’ (which I later learned means ‘outpatients’).

My little game continues to this day, though we live in a more remote corner of the country.

Mairie DouvaineImagine you have an appointment at la Mairie to get your passport renewed. You know where the city hall is, of course, as it’s usually one of the more obvious buildings in town. Often it has a large clock tower and looks rather like a church, with a sweep of steps and a stately set of wooden doors. Do not be fooled into thinking you should try to open them.

All those gorgeous doorways you see in photos of France? They are not the entrance. Nine times out of ten those doors are locked and only opened on state occasions or emergencies. The real entrance for le public is usually around the block or on the side, through a set of ugly modern doors that slide open, sometimes even with an elevator or a ramp for handicapped access. Practical, if something of a letdown in aesthetic terms.

Even when you find the door, you may not be able to get in. You may need a code, or an appointment, or be outside the official public opening hours from 13:45 to 16:15 (that’s 1:45 to 4:15 pm for North Americans). I exaggerate, if only slightly.

Finding the entrance in France is so much more than getting yourself to the right door. I’m still trying to figure it out.

Sometimes the exit can also be challenging. You have gone through so many sets of doors, corridors and stairways to reach your destination that you may have a hard time remembering the way out. I still get the giggles when I remember my husband, having just blown his stack in a public building following an interminable wait, turned on his heel to leave in a huff. Only he found himself standing in front of two glass doors that were locked. Sortie à gauche, we saw too late. Dignity intact, if slightly bruised, we exited stage right.

Oddly enough, it dawns on me that our new house, the one we had built here in France two years ago, has the front door in the back. Maybe I’ve been here too long…

What about you? Ever have trouble figuring out where the entrance is?

Have no fear

Madeline with the lions

My daughter, the lion-hearted, in Zimbabwe.

There is one word in the French language that is uncomfortably familiar to me.

It began when I was a child. After begging my parents for years, we finally got a dog. It looked so sweet and had silky ears. Then it bit me with its little pin-prick puppy teeth. I was terrified.

“Don’t be a nervous Nelly!” ordered my Dad. He made me put my hand in the jaw of the beast to prove that it didn’t really hurt. Or only a little. I had no reason to fear.

That was when I learned that there are times in life when it is better to pretend not to be afraid. Sometimes it works.

The French word for fear is ‘peur. The verb is ‘avoir peur’ (to have fear). ‘J’ai peur’ was one of the first things I learned in French. I’ve been trying to unlearn it ever since.

The first step was to conquer my fear of flying. I was never a fan of air travel but moving to France forced me to submit to transatlantic flights. Either that or never see my family again. So I made a deal with myself: have a drink, think about the statistics, stop worrying. And guess what? It worked. For the most part, barring major turbulence. Travelling with my husband, Mr. Have-no-fear, has also helped.

Fear of the unknown was the next big hurdle. I only knew one person when I first arrived in Paris many years ago: the fearless future husband. Everything else – the language, the culture, the working world – was unknown.

It took time but we got to know each other, me and France. I gradually decoded the language. The culture cues came, sometimes slowly. Life took over – raising kids, getting a job – and the unknown gradually ebbed. Still, the fears did not entirely disappear.

Fear of driving persists, especially on the highway where I am a true nervous Nelly. Along with fear of getting lost, still a frequent occurrence. Fear of terrorist bombs: there haven’t been any lately but there was a series of attentats when I first arrived in France, which forever marked me.

The biggest one – fear of making a fool of oneself – will probably never be vanquished. It haunts me in the street when I hesitate to ask directions, in social situations where I fear not understanding something obvious, looking or sounding silly.

It is dulled somewhat by familiarity. The fact is, I look foolish a lot. Every time something flies in my face and I pull a Basil Fawlty. When I try to pronounce an unpronounceable word. (Boursouflure. You try it.) When I try to say something that doesn’t make sense. When I talk to my dog.

But those are not real fears. The really scary stuff is things that go bump in the night. The fear of waking up alone, or not at all. Of people you love not coming back.

I try not to fear for my family, who are spread out all over the place and have a taste for adventure. Climbing mountains, taming lions, living in foreign climes. They don’t seem to have inherited the fear gene. I am grateful for that.

Daily I struggle to have no fear. I say to myself:  Je n’ai pas peur.

Sometimes it works.


Vigipirate TF1We have lived under the threat of terrorism in France for so long that a state of emergency has become the norm.

‘Vigipirate,’ an amalgam of the words ‘vigilance’ and ‘pirate,’ is the French national security plan that defines levels of risk of an attentat (terrorist act). It ranges from the mild threat on yellow to the red alert. Each level calls for specific security measures, including increased police or military patrols in subways, train stations and other vulnerable locations.

What does that mean in everyday life? Metal detectors in government buildings. Public toilets closed. Garbage bins removed from street corners and train stations. School trips cancelled. And police with automatic weapons casually patrolling streets of major cities.

Back in the summer of ’95, shortly after we moved here, a wave of terror hit France. This was my first experience living up close with a terrorist threat. My daughter, Madeline, was just two, and my son, Elliott, had started cours primaire, the French equivalent of grade one. We were living in Lyon and my husband traveled frequently to Paris on the TGV, the high-speed train.

I felt incredibly vulnerable and exposed to dangers that suddenly seemed omnipresent. Our apartment was in a busy part of the third arondissement, just a couple of blocks from the fire station where sirens were going constantly. The narrow streets of our quartier were tightly packed with parked cars – each a potential bomb.

People were warned to watch for abandoned bags in public places. I began to look suspiciously at garbage bags piled by the curb. If someone set their suitcase down outside a shop, I was ready to call the police. My husband joked about my paranoia. But where to draw the line?

That July, a gas bottle exploded in the Paris Metro station Saint-Michel, killing eight and injuring 80, and other bombs were set at the Arc de Triomphe and on the TGV train line. Then a car bomb blew up in front of a Jewish school in Villeurbanne, just next to Lyon. Fortunately, the children had been kept late so the worst was avoided. Some weeks later, a young Algerian named Khaled Kelkal was shot down and killed in the hills outside of Lyon by the GIGN, an elite paramilitary force. He was part of the “Armed Islamic Group” that had been trying to bring the civil war in Algeria to France. His fingerprints had been found on homemade bombs used in the attacks. They were similar to those used in Boston.

The first time I saw men toting machine guns on the streets of Paris, I was terrified. “Are those babies actually loaded?” I asked my husband. He told me not to worry – they were there to protect us. I have since heard this sentiment echoed many times by the French, who are visibly reassured by a display of official weaponry.

Perhaps it’s cultural but when I see weapons I do not feel safe. They are there to be used, and who knows who might get caught in the crossfire?

I also learned to distinguish between the various levels of “les forces de l’ordre.” The French do not use the word police in any generic way, which I learned after mistakenly referring to to la police every time I saw an uniformed officer.

Your typical local policeman is a municipal employee. ‘Les flics’ as the cops are called, give out tickets and tell you to move on if you’re loitering. In Paris and other major cities much of the policing is handled by the National Police, or CRS, who report to the Minister of the Interior.  Don’t ask me why this is important but trust me, it is. These guys are in charge of identity checks and traffic control in la capitale.

Then you have the gendarmes, who are actually members of the military deployed to protect the highways, regions and smaller towns. The word ‘gendarme’ comes from the old French ‘gens d’armes’ meaning men-at-arms.

When things get very scary, they bring in the big guns. The National Gendarmerie Intervention Group, commonly abbreviated GIGN (Groupe d’Intervention de la Gendarmerie Nationale), is a special operations unit trained to perform counter-terrorist and hostage rescue missions. These guys wear masks to keep their identity secret.

Since the bombings at the Boston marathon, France has once again stepped up its security status to ‘rouge renforcé’. According to President Hollande, who checked out the Vigipirate plan at Charles de Gaulle airport on Thursday, this is nothing out of the ordinary. Since the French intervention in Mali, and its position on Syria, indeed, ever since the war in Iraq, France remains on the alert.

This is the new normal.