THE DIVIDED STATES OF AMERICA
Red and Blue Polarities
Pinned to several posts, photographs of our newly elected President Obama smiled to crowds of Parisian shoppers strolling through the open-air market. I felt a patriotic pride, a feeling that sometimes eludes me when I’m in a different country. Striving to live up to the ideologies of the United States of America is often in conflict with its realities, but the election of a black man exemplified the basic credo that “all men (and women) are created equal.”
Anna had just moved to Paris to attend film school. Walking through the vibrant Barbès neighborhood, a community of African and Arab immigrants, we stopped at one stall to check out the wares. The vendor’s headscarf—patterned in geometric shapes of bright yellow, orange, red, green—wound around dark curls that accentuated her deep brown eyes and coffee-colored skin. She dressed in an African dashiki of similar fabric to the headscarf and blended in with the artfully arranged fruits, vegetables, herbs, and piles of spices. She and I were about the same age—both of us having been alive during Rosa Park’s symbolic and bold move, the civil rights movement, and eventually a black man’s election into the most influential leadership role in the world.
I looked at President Obama’s face and in baby French said, Mon president! J’adore mon president! The woman and I looked deeply into one another’s eyes. She came from her display booth, put her arms around me and said. Vous êtes formidable. We stood together with our arms entwined, teary-eyed, and with sloppy grins on our faces while exchanging a pure heartfelt moment. We chatted about the human race and our hope for the possibility overcoming racism and the historic and evolutionary step forward in the direction of equality for all. I told her my optimism in humanity had been restored.
As Anna and I walked on, I remember thinking that if I lived long enough perhaps I’d witness our county’s election of a lesbian woman of color to become our president.
Anything is possible, I thought.
I was right about that.
Eight years later, to surprise Anna for her birthday I scheduled a trip to Paris, leaving the morning after the 2016 presidential election. This trip tells a different story.
When the cab driver took my luggage old glory’s red, white, and blue ID tag lit up like a neon light announcing my nationality. The driver’s eyes narrowed with a look of disbelief and blame as he looked into mine, and then spit out in throaty, pinch-nosed French, Trumph? Trumph? Trumph? Quoi?
Unable to respond, I shrank, my spotty French frozen somewhere in my traumatized brain.
Apparently unconcerned with geniality or a tip he continued. Merde! Il est un imbécile…un clown—he stared at me, and then thrust my luggage into the trunk. Je ne comprends pas!
I found some French words and sputtered, “I don’t understand what happened…I am sorry. It’s awful.” Driving into the heart of Paris, the driver softened slightly once he knew we shared the same sentiments. We exchanged as much information as our language barriers would allow us. In the mid 1990s, as a child he’d fled with his family to live in France as refugees while his home country, The Congo, raged in the civil wars that would continue for decades. Now, the safety he and his family had once felt in their adopted country, had been shattered by terrorist attacks. Eh maintnant Trumph! Il est mauvais pour tous les monde.
“Yes,” I agreed. “He is bad for everyone.” Forty minutes later, after paying the driver, he thanked me, looked in my eyes again; sighed, and then he drove away.
I’d managed to leave Bellingham and fly to Paris without having any conversations about the election results. On that momentous day, passengers flying from our blue state of Washington appeared somber and wouldn’t make eye contact—possibly wondering, like me, whom among us had voted for that man? During the journey, at each airport TV screens blathered, but I couldn’t listen.
Anna was still at work when I arrived at the apartment. Kilian, her partner, buzzed me in and welcomed me with a comforting hug. Having grown up a few generations away from post WWII Germany, Kilian’s warmth reminded me that—like all other species—humans have an innate desire to survive, and that part of survival is being able to advance as a society. Modern Germans I know demonstrate this with good cheer and grace.
While I freshened up from being flung across the world, my thoughts persisted. Would future citizens of The United States someday be in the same position as Germany…kind of a post Trump shame that would force us to wake up to kindness and a promise to work harder to live peacefully? Other questions piled up. Would the president elect’s leadership and agenda cause the death of our country? Will another world war begin? Is this how frightened populations felt leading up to the world wars…with the uncertainty, misinformation, counter-information hiding the truth? End of civilization stories gathered in my mind. I remembered similar thoughts after 9/11, but the difference then was that United States citizens didn’t choose that catastrophe—but many people apparently chose this current state of pending catastrophe.
After I rested, Kilian and I went out to lunch. In the streets of Paris, life continued in the ancient city, a mecca of culture and renown. During its long history, the city had fallen many times during violent and destructive conflicts, and then risen again like a phoenix from the ashes to rebuild, structurally and socially. This thought comforted me.
Operating on a few hours of scrunched-up sleep and heartbreak, the noisy bustle and stale city air that usually stresses me was a welcomed diversion from current events. After lunch, Kilian and I gathered supplies to prepare for Anna’s surprise.
Walking into the apartment, Anna melted into my arms and cried. I have seldom felt as needed by my adult daughter and the timing of my surprise visit was serendipitous.
“Mama! Mama! It’s you.” She stroked my hair.
“Annie! Annie! It’s you.” I stroked her hair.
My daughter and I, in those moments, didn’t need words—we shared a telepathic synchronicity of sadness and love.
Armistice Day meant that Anna and Kilian had the next day off. We spent a leisurely morning trying not to spew our disbelief about the changing of power in The United States, but our conversations always drifted in that direction. In the afternoon, Anna and I took off to the Sacré-Coeur Cathédrale in the Monmartre District—a place Anna and I first visited in 1994 on a mother/daughter/grandmother trip four weeks before Mom died from cancer. Memories of pushing Mom around in a wheel chair added to our grief.
Anna and I charged on in clear sky and frigid air. The political situation hovered over us, around us, and in us. “Tuesday night as we listened to the results come in, Mark was upset, but he told me that he didn’t want to hear me piss and moan all night. I’m glad that you and I can piss and moan as much as we need to, Annie.”
“Hey Mom. I want to take you to a special place. This will make us feel better.” We walked to an outdoor, 430 square foot, dark-blue ceramic wall, in which the words “I Love You” glazed in white across the tiles in 250 languages. Splashes of red scattered throughout represented broken hearts. Hundreds of other visitors had the same idea so we waited for our turn to stand beneath the English words “I Love You” while someone took our photo.
Anna was right. We did feel better. Symbolic gestures can be soothing and powerful reminders to stay aware of all that is right.
For several more hours we walked around Paris arm-in-arm, in and out of shops, sipping café au lait, and enjoying our time together. At a favorite restaurant of Anna’s, we dined in an enclosed terraced rooftop. While we ate, we gazed out at a panoramic view of the city. In the distance The Eiffel Tower, Arc de Triomphe, and other famous landmarks stood towering above the city’s skyline glowing in the sunset.
Afterwards, we walked until the sky darkened and the crystalline City of Light glistened against the night sky.
The next day, Kilian had a surprise birthday brunch planned for Anna, and my job was to get her out of the apartment. “I need a pharmacy,” I told her. “And a walk.” So off we went. Again, when Parisians recognized our “American-ness” the dismal conversations continued, but most Parisians emanated kindness and sympathy.
During the brunch the younger adults wanted to talk about that man and the outcome of it. We all tried not to, but it seems we needed to. As the older women I felt a certain responsibility to try to keep hope alive even though I felt hopelessness.
Emails from home kept the topic alive—there was no escape. We knew we needed to find ways to move through our fears and implications of what was to come, but how? Our shock was still too raw.