French Friday: In Memory. With Love.

In memory of 9/11 I won’t write my weekly Monday Miam-Miam post. Instead, I remember today of this world-changing event and also of my family’s first cross-country road trip, born from September 11, 2001.

This post is also my love message to this land I am so grateful to inhabit. A land that is currently suffering on so many different levels. A land that I still discover when I travel its natural beauty and complex human landscape.

En mémoire du 11 septembre je n’écrirai pas mon billet hebdomadaire du lundi. Ce billet d’aujourd’hui est en souvenir de cet évènement qui bouscula et transforma le monde. Ce billet évoque aussi le premier voyage de ma famille à travers les Etats Unis. C’est aussi un message d’affection profonde pour cette terre que j’ai la chance d’habiter. Une terre qui souffre actuellement pour des raisons humaines et naturelles. Une terre que je découvre encore lorsque je traverse sa beauté géographique et rencontre son unique diverse population.

Pour ceux et celles qui aiment me lire dans notre belle langue natale, que j’ai parfois tellement peur de perdre au fil de ma vie américaine, il se trouve que j’ai de nombreux billets sur nos voyages au coeur des US. Vous pouvez les trouver en recherchant Route 66, le 11 septembre, ou encore New York City.

 

When my husband drove home from Massachusetts to California, escaping the aftermath of 9/11, he brought with him unforgettable pictures and stories of a country so big that many west coast residents will never set foot on the east coast and many east coast residents will never visit the west.

“When I followed the directions to get home,” he told me. “I wanted to follow others. I could have gone anywhere.” He always paused there.

It is because of this pause, more an invitation than a silence, that, two years later, the six of us went on our first family cross-country trip.

A year and a half after 9/11, four months after the Iraq invasion preceding the lengthy war, our country was still healing. Everywhere, people needed to check on each other to make sure everyone was all right. The sense of loss, of having stepped into a different state of mind was still palpable.

In New York City, in that summer of 2003, we wanted to stay at the recently reopened Millenium hotel in lower Manhattan where my husband had stayed for business several times. The hotel suffered great damage on September 11. Our room overlooked Ground Zero, and neither my husband nor I slept much on the first night. Our thoughts took us back to that day when our country and the world entered a new era. We both listened at the sound of the bulldozers that dug through the night and the shouts and voices of the workers who switched shifts.

In the morning, haggard and somber, we walked to St. Paul’s Chapel, the children holding hands. We don’t go to mass but we visit religious edifices, regardless of their denominations, for cultural and architectural purposes, and the children had always been quiet as a sign of respect for anyone’s religious beliefs. Yet on that hot, humid summer morning, they had never been so solemn.

They held hands as they entered the makeshift memorial and only parted when my seven-year-old son chose to linger around the drawings and the flags rather than to read the cards and banners. His sister, only two years older, wanted to make sense of each and every word. Of course, my methodic science oriented daughter stepped from one exhibit to the other while my oldest said that she couldn’t breathe and asked to wait for us in the garden near the sycamore that is said to have spared the church from any damage.

I kept my husband’s hand in mine. We had discovered New York many years ago, before we knew each other, and we had both succumbed to the city’s spell. Later when we lived in Massachusetts we had taken every opportunity to spend weekends in New York together. Before September 11, it had been so easy to flash a plain driver’s license at Logan Airport before jumping into the shuttle for La Guardia. Since we loved Paris we could only love New York. Paris is the New York of the French. Both offer so much to love and hate.

On that hot, humid summer morning, we both had only love for New York.

On that same first cross-country trip, we traveled the mythic Route 66 all the way from Illinois to California. The remnants of the Main Street of America were often nothing more than a strip of abandoned motels, broken neon that didn’t blink anymore, and a few shacks that displayed tourist memorabilia. Yet everywhere, it was easy to visualize what Route 66 once saw: young people or families driving shiny cars, stopping for gas at Phillips 66, pulling in a drive-in for a hamburger and a milk shake, and spending a night at one of the kitschy motels.

As we drove toward Oklahoma City, a summer storm was brewing above us. Lightning zigzagged through bruised clouds.

“Don’t you think that after Ground Zero, a visit to another site of terror is too much?” my husband asked me when I suggested a stop at the National Memorial.

“It’s different,” I said.

For the children, like most Americans, being a terrorist after September 11 meant being Muslim. Oklahoma City was the perfect place for clarification.

A little more than one hundred years after the Great Run Race, on April 19, 1995, 168 men, women and children lost their lives in the same city in the bombing of one the downtown federal buildings.

Oklahoma City was reinventing itself through cafés and breweries, basketball games and street music, merely blocks away from the serene National Memorial built on the site of the destroyed federal building.

“The children got smaller chairs,” my son said as we paused, facing the chairs that represent the lives lost that day. “At Ground Zero, there is nothing.”

On the outskirts of Oklahoma City, a couple of hitchhikers, she, pregnant and handicapped, he, keeping an eye on the storm, held a sign that read: “Jesus Saves.” Stuck at the red light, I was ashamed to witness their poverty.

“Can we give them some money?” asked my youngest daughter.

The light changed to green. We moved on. The hitchhikers waved at us.

Until we arrived in Sayre, Oklahoma, the old Road 66 was mostly a trip back in time with pictures of a young and energetic country. But Sayre, on a steaming August afternoon, was a reminder of a different past. The Great Depression forced many Oklahoma residents to flee their state for the promised land of California.

I had read The Grapes of Wrath in French and some extracts in English while I was in high school. Part of the movie based on Steinbeck’s novel and starring Henry Fonda, had been filmed in Sayre, Oklahoma. I hadn’t been able, as a French schoolgirl, to grasp the despair and the anger, but also the hope and courage of the Joad family in their catastrophic trip from Oklahoma to California. But when I walked through the almost deserted, dilapidated downtown of Sayre in the middle of a hot summer day, it didn’t take much imagination to feel the distress of the period.

“Route 66 opened access from the East to the West,” my husband told the children. “This is also the road that the people who left Oklahoma for California took.”

“Why did they leave?” my son asked.

“Because California is better,” my Parisian-born daughter said.

“It’s my birth state,” said my first American-born daughter.

“Mine too,” her younger sister piped in.

“They were looking for more job opportunities,” my husband said. “That’s why they left.”

“Like you and Maman,” my son said. It wasn’t a question, but a statement.

The soil in Sayre, as it is in most of Oklahoma, is as red as blood. On the day of our visit, although the sky swelled like an overripe fruit above our heads, only a few heavy, warm drops of rain trickled down.

Later, as we drove across the panhandle of Texas, reaching Amarillo for a steak dinner and a good night’s sleep, I thought of the Joad family, stopping only for a quick rest and hoping their car would make it through another day.

When we crossed New Mexico and Arizona, we had plenty of time to enjoy the dramatic landscape of the Southwest, the food, and the little shops along Route 66. The Joads drove all night and stopped only when they reached the Colorado River at dawn.

In Needles, California, one of the hottest points in the country, the temperature reached 117 F at 9:00 p.m. The windshield was burning hot under my hand. We stopped at a roadside café, which offered limited food choices, but an intriguing sign:

“We didn’t choose to be here, but this is your last chance to have dinner, so be nice and appreciative. We have spent a lot of money to make this place a decent rest stop.”

Unusual American business message to customers perhaps, but it is true that any driver should stop in Needles for gas and food. Just in case. The road through the Mojave Desert is long and unforgiving. After dinner, the temperature hadn’t dropped, but our car was air-conditioned, and we drove safely through the barren land. The Joads had an old, unreliable car. When they reached Needles, they went on, through the heat and isolation of the harsh Mojave Desert.

Approaching Bakersfield, which opens the southern doors of the vast San Joaquin Valley, the Joads discovered, awestruck, the beauty of the valley.

“I didn’t knowed there was anything like her,” said Pa. He called, “Ma-come look. We’re there!”

The Mother Road in 2003 was still paved with sweat and glory, misery and hope.

 

Unlike my husband and the children, I couldn’t fall asleep after our first cross-country trip. Even with eyes closed, surrounded by quietness I was restless. The vastness of the United States of America kept me awake.

American flags on the motorcycles. Bumper stickers on semis: “Without trucks, America stops.” Bumper stickers on cars: “Got Jesus?” Waitresses working long shifts while their children are home. Gas attendants smoking behind the building while customers get coffee and donuts. “How are yous?” at the rest areas. Smiles and nods at the free continental breakfast buffet. Miles under the wheels, trucks zooming by, sandwiches on the side of the road, and newspapers spread all over the car.

And the infinite beauty of a land as vast, as diverse, as generous, and as resilient as its people made me hungry for more.

 

In 2007, the French philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy published The American Vertigo. The book was written as he made his own cross-country trek, following the journey of Alexis de Tocqueville, who published Democracy in America in 1835 and 1840. Although Mr. Levy met interesting and well-known people that I won’t ever meet, his United States didn’t smell, taste, or even look much like mine. The title of his book, however, drew me when I bought it in France.

There was no other possible title, I now realize.

And this is why, each time my husband suggests yet another road trip, I agree.

For this vertigo that reminds me that I live in the United States of America.

 

 

%d bloggers like this: