Jeter de l’Huile sur le Feu

A new immigration law passed in Arizona. French president Nicolas Sarkozy wants to ban the burqa in French public places. The burqa is a long dark cloak that covers the entire body including the face of some Muslim women. Belgium is splitting between the Flemish and the francophone.
When the world has never been more open, thanks to the internet and electronic communication, it is a paradox to read this week media in the US and Europe.
They tell of a world where frontiers of language and culture fall but at the same time of a world who wants more than ever to build new barriers. Although tougher legislations and stricter laws are voted and passed, ordinary people in their vast majority oppose them. As if they knew better than the governments that it just won’t work.
This week events tell of fear and non acceptance. They tell of a malaise about the other. Differences trigger suspicion so it’s easy to jump to conclusion and decide that anyone different can only be the source of our problems.
As a foreigner who has made her home in the US, I picked the right place since it is by definition the land of immigrants. It is also the only place on earth where your next door neighbor will always be willing to share stories about his or her ancestors.
So this is no surprise that many Americans express shock and shame when they discuss the Arizona law. We are all aware that illegal immigration is out of control and needs a reform but people don’t like a law that points fingers at men and women who look or talk a certain way.
French people also disagree. Should the burqa be seen as a choice from some Muslim women and thus respected? Or should it be banned because it is an obnoxious decision to shock French people? Most oppose a law they consider a political move since wearing the burqa is still marginal.
Belgium, split in two, blames the other half of the country for its economic problems. Yet, most Belgians express concern and share stories about their friendships with one another.
Maybe, it is time for our governments to listen to its people and stop “jeter de l’huile sur le feu” or throwing oil on the fire like my mother was telling me and my sister when we were fighting for nothing and being more inflammatory than needed.

En Français, S’il Vous Plait

Just read Pardon my French, article written by Michael Kimmelman for the New York Times.
Mr. Kimmelman met with Eric Zemmour who works at the conservative French daily paper Le Figaro. Complaining about the end of the French language, Zemmour blames everyone from the immigrants to the middle class and even the upper class. According to him, nobody in France cares about preserving the unique French culture that he believes doesn’t exist without keeping the French language. Mr. Zemmour thinks that France has to defend the French language which is under siege. Translation: English language has overtaken the world.
Whenever I open a French magazine, I am indeed amazed by the growing number of English vocabulary that is now present in most headlines. It is more evident in feminine and fashion magazines and of course anything linked to the high tech and internet world is definitely in English. Even my sister who lives in France and isn’t fluent in English drops English words such as boss, job, cool, news through her e-mails which are called mail in France.
On the other hand, to add a je ne sais quoi to their articles, American magazines love to sprinkle a French word here and there.
A strange language is spoken in my home in California. The mix of French and English would sound perhaps shocking to Mr. Zemmour but it is our trademark. Although my husband and I speak fluent French and address our children in our native language, they answer in English and always talk together in English. Lively conversations happen in both languages and more often in a unique blend of both. I suspect it is the case in many households in the US and despite Mr. Zemmour’s fear,it is also happening in France.
Languages evolve as does the world. The French language Africans speak in the 18th arrondissement in Paris or young Arabs in the Parisian and big ciites suburbs is not exactly the proper French I learned at school. Words mix and match and yes, sometimes clash against each other. But isn’t the thirst for communication more important?
Young people are hungry for contact with each other. And yes, English is the language they use to share the universality of human experiences and feelings.
Each language is beautiful and I understand Mr. Zemmour’s desire to keep them alive. But it is because they are living that languages evolve and change.
After almost twenty years spent in the USA, I still read in French every day although I almost never write in French anymore. Writing in English is my way to belong to my adoptive country. It links me to a culture that is not mine by birth but by choice.
Strangely, I have never been more interested in the role languages play in people’s search for their place in the world than now, far from my homeland. Writing in English hasn’t made me less French or more American. When I share stories about France and the French language through my writing or with my American friends, I contribute to the keeping of the French culture more than I did when I lived in France.
If only for that reason, I am willing to loose some of the proper French I learned at school. I already did a long time ago anyway to communicate with my four children.

Where Are You From?

Some topics have the power to ignite passionate and even out of control discussions. I believed that the new immigration law passed in Arizona would bring back the controversial subject of illegal immigration to the front page. However the media coverage has been rather discreet.
Is it because it is embarrassing to write or tell that now in Arizona a police officer can ask for proof of residence to anyone he believes is living there illegally?
As an immigrant who became a US citizen, I am still on a regular basis asked about my origins. Although I am by nature open to conversations, I have occasionally resented the insistence of some people. Over the years I’ve created a sample of possible answers to the frequent question: “Where are you from?”
Depending of the person who is asking me, I have volunteered genuine information. Sometimes I’ve said that I am from California but it always triggers more questions. Often I’ve wished I could remove the infamous ‘Made in France’ tag attached to my tongue like a too obnoxious piercing.
When I read about the Arizona law, I was reminded of an incident that happened a few years ago close to my home in California.
I was driving a brand new car and I realized that the headlights didn’t seem to work properly. Just as I decided to park and check on them, a CHP officer pulled behind my car.
“Do you know why I am pulling you over?” he asked, after checking my driver license, the car registration and proof of insurance.
“I believe that my lights are not working properly,” I said.
He nodded, checking the inside of my car where my son, his sister and her friend were sitting. “Your ID says you live in Coarsegold,” he said. “Coarsegold is that way.” He jerked his thumb south of my direction.
“I am driving back my daughter’s friend to Bass Lake,” I explained.
He looked back into the car. “Which one is it?”
The girl waved from her seat.
“And these kids are?” the officer asked.
“Mine,” I said.
“All right,” he finally said, handing me back my papers. “Drive safely.” Then, leaning at my window, he added, “Anyway, Bass Lake, Coarsegold, that’s not really home. Where are you from?”
I told him I was originally from France but that I left years ago. He nodded and said, “That’s what I thought.”
His words tasted of guilt in my mouth. I had done nothing wrong except fidgeting with the headlights of a new car. It was no big deal since he didn’t give me a ticket. Yet, my heart pounded in my chest as I couldn’t quite forget neither understand the distrust thickening his voice.
When skin color and foreign accents trigger instant suspicion we forget that this country is home to many more legal immigrants than illegal. I have no instant remedy to offer to cure the issue of illegal immigration but any kind of profiling is certainly not the solution. If they had ever created a better world, we would know.

No Souvenirs to Buy, only Memories to Collect

Our last full day took us to the most exotic and breathtaking part of the canyon. Mooney Falls located at the very end of the campground is only reachable through a vertical series of ladders and picks anchored in the rock. I’ve hiked Half Dome in Yosemite National Park more than once and even at night but the way down to Mooney Falls is more treacherous than the ascent to the top of Half Dome with the cables.
My son, as any young boy, enjoyed the thrill but I progressed cautiously, aware of the fragility of the soil. What was stretching at my feet rewarded me above expectations.
Mooney Falls would be the perfect location to shoot a commercial for body wash and shampoo. We actually took showers using biodegradable soap. Hair gets as smooth as baby skin and shiny as healthy fruit when washed with spring water. No need for conditioner or hair dryer.
We bathed, swam and splashed until hunger brought us back to our backpacks. We polished the last bite of our fruits and licked our peanut butter jars before exploring the falls. Lush vegetation grows along the rocks under small cascades. Ferns and moss greener than the grass that carpets my native Normandy cover walls of rocks. Droplets of water slide along and you could almost see plants grow under your eyes. The blue of the sky mixed to the pure green and the brick color of the rock can’t possibly be imitated by humans. We could have hiked for hours and still meet a different landscape at each turn of the stream. The fresh and cool water poked small needles through our skin and we searched for sunny rocks to soak up the sun.
When it started its descent behind the canyon and we had to slip into our fleeces, we hiked our way up to the campground for an early dinner. Later that night, we returned to Havasu Falls right in time for sunset. We took last pictures, each of us aware that we had come to a special place. In silence, we gathered scents, sounds and sights instead of browsing through touristy boutiques. Here we had no souvenirs to buy, only memories to collect.
I don’t know what my fellow hikers thought then. As for me, I knew that once in a while I would open my memory bag and release a few treasures when man-made world would seem fake and too small.

Life in the Cocoon of Nature

In order to keep my bag light I didn’t bring a mat to slip under my sleeping bag. It didn’t bother my son but I spent the night shifting my body that sunk into the sand packed hard and cold under the tent. The night trickled, punctuated with gusts of wind that sounded like rain against the tent and the gushing of water rolling along rocks. Several times I poked my head outside, destabilized by the power of nature. Stars shone high and bright above my head and I had rarely felt as small and insignificant.
Breakfast in the outdoors tastes of real hunger and the six of us devoured our oatmeal, raisins and bananas, our hands wrapped around steaming mugs of tea and coffee. No marmots had made it to our food that we had packed in bags and hooked high around tree branches.
Housekeeping is kept minimal when camping. However, chores that in the city are expedited, thanks to dishwashers, vacuum cleaners and bottled water, take more time and energy. When we had washed and dried our dishes, put the food safely away, made our beds, filled our camel packs with fresh drinkable water, and packed our lunches, it was time to start our exploration of Havasu Falls.
The walk to the fall is short and easy. The fall cascades its way down to a shallow lagoon filled with turquoise water. Havasu Falls aren’t seasonal and temperature of the water remains around 70 F yearlong making it a treat for the summer visitors when outside temperatures exceed 100F.
We spent the day playing in the water and exploring the caves carved in the mountain. Silver and copper were mined there but now only empty caves remain for the delight of explorers. Equipped with flashlights and headlights, we walked along tunnels, pierced with occasional openings overlooking the immensity of the canyon.
Night crawled upon us and we returned to the comfort of food and shelter. We played card games and drank red wine and hot tea until the stars illuminated the sky like Christmas lights decorate trees and windows in December.
New campers had arrived. Troops of boy scouts coming from all over California and Arizona filled the last free camping spots left and the night resonated with laughter and young voices.
The wind had died down and the night fell silky and peaceful on our tents. I slept like I hadn’t since a long time. My home in California is nestled among trees and peace but here in the deep darkness and perfect quietness of the canyon, I curled up in the cocoon of nature.

Backpacking to Havasu Falls

Months ago, I agreed to join a few friends to Havasu Falls. This oasis of lush vegetation and turquoise water is located in a secluded canyon two hours away from the Grand Canyon National Park. Although I’ve been on several challenging day hikes and camping trips, I had never backpacked until now. I invited my thirteen-year-old son to accompany me and he accepted.
Our group made of six people entered the Indian reservation on a sunny late morning and after sixty miles on a deserted two lane road, we reached the top of the trail. Our backpacks weighted an average of thirty pound. The wind blew strong and cold at the top of the trail. It was tempting to rent one of the many mules that can carry camping gear and even people. But we had decided to go for the whole experience and started the descent to the village of Supai at 1:00 p.m.
We attacked the steep plunge that stretches for a mile and a half, excited but also cautious. The weight of the gear can easily destabilize any hiker and the trail is filled with rocks, gravel and dust. Quickly, four of us found our pace and the group agreed that we should split in order to make it to the village by 5:00 p.m. to get our reservation tags for the campground. My son, two of my friends and I took off. The best pictures can’t carry the raw beauty of the Arizona canyons. The red and grey colors blend in such a way that they create their own nameless dye. Sweeping views take you beyond the deep blue sky that in the west seems bigger than earth.
My son galloped the ten miles down, skipping rocks and sinking deep into the thick layer of gravel that lines the canyon. I envied his light and sure gait. I wanted him to have an unforgettable experience and my heart swelled when I caught his blue eyes filled with awe and eagerness. Mules passed us, balancing coolers, duffle bags and packs of bottled drinks. Their hooves kicked dust that coated our leg pants and skin. The men who mounted the mules belong to the people of Supai and although they speak English and listen to music with headphones plugged in their ears like most teens do around the world, they carry their conversations between themselves in their ancestral smooth sounding native language.
I had never been in an Indian reservation before and it was impossible to ignore this bloody part of American history as I left my own foot print in a canyon older than any landscape I had ever seen in the US.
As we approached the village of Supai, the murmur of water running along the trail kept us company. Shortly before the village, the sound gave place to a stream that flows to the heart of Supai. We all come to a place with assumptions, our imagination shaped from our own past and experiences. I envisioned Supai as a quaint and picture like village, similar to the mountain villages I’ve seen all over Europe and even the US.
Nothing had prepared me for the poverty that waited around the windy road. We strode the silent dirt main street of the village, passing by a woman as old as the rocks backing the wooden houses that sit among overflowing garbage cans, rusty bikes, broken cars and towering weeds. Overweight men and women clad in baggy jeans and sweatshirts ignored our hellos and I felt as displaced as I had felt in Kenya in the mid eighties when I had wandered away from the heart of Mombasai.
The Supai had made the canyon their homes for hundreds of years and the reservation was what was left to them after being ripped of their land, culture and pride. Although I grew up in France, being now an American citizen made me as guilty and ashamed as any of my fellow hikers. A bulletin board advertised a variety of events to the population. Among them one was encouraging people to walk to be healthier. An helicopter hovered above our head. It landed on a pad in the center of the village and unloaded its cargo of food and drinks that would go to the store or the lodge. The small café at the center of the village carried typical supermarket food ranging from sodas to chips, from jerky beef to sliced white bread. Although deserted, the church and the school were well kept. Kids were running along the dirt streets. Bare feet, faces smeared with dust and dirt and grins as big as the sky, they welcomed us with chirpy voices. On the other hand, most adults looked away when they passed us. A few women nodded and a trio of teens put us back in the right direction. We had 2.2 miles left to reach the campground.
We walked them in silence. The weight of our backpacks crushed our shoulders and hips but the weight of the past was even heavier making us foreigners in our own country.

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