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Montreal to Pennsylvania to Paris to Lyon
January – April 2006

2006 met Liouba and Sasha in Moscow. I, Layla, met my first day of the year in Montreal. I didn’t notice the time fly – a dimension of experience pregnant with bureaucratic details meant to break down any mortal, but not me. Then, suddenly it was March. In Montreal, spring was not to be seen for several more months, and winter has been mostly nagging, plaintive and weeping this year – very little of the usual snowy brightness and mad wind to blow away illusions of human might.

This is the usual montreal winter – no houses to be seen under the snow.

This is what winter presented this time.

So I rushed south to meet spring, freedom, and my mother who had kindly agreed to keep my 113 cats.

In spite of Greyhound bus “comfort” and border anxiety (another detail meant to shatter some mortals, but not me), I made it cheerfully to Philadelphia where mum picked me up and drove me to the Bryn Mawr College library to get loaded with books to last  through years of literary hunger, just in case. Mum met with whoever she was to meet and then drove me to her alcove at the end of a blind alley in the land of the Amish.

Vologda and some of our other cats were there, waiting to see me. They began to run and jump around from joy, just like kittens. Vologda, immediately got me a mole for whom I wept in my heart and thanked her deeply.

My surfing the net for cheapies, finally, bore fruit, and April sees me revising my decision never to return to France.

Well, France is France. What can I say?

So, here I am in Paris. Daytime. My friend Khalda and her family are still at work and in school. I decide to walk to their place across Montmartre and delve into the memories of what once has briefly been my neighbourhood with clowns, and gypsies and painters and prostitutes, the poets of flesh and desire. I remembered how, once I had looked out of my window over rue Lepic and saw a guy pull down his pants, squat and lay on the pavement long, thick, brown organic matter. Since then I knew, what I had suspected before, that poop in Paris was not canine only.

Speaking of poop, less of it on the streets, for sure. Hmmm. So, some things do change. Then I noticed the “decrotteurs” or the “demerdeurs” or “depoopers” or, finally, the “poop-collectors”, depending on how sophisticated you choose to sound, driving around in their little machines with long metal hands. The ones I’ve seen were all members of the visible immigrant class. The visible class of the Franks argued that it was good to have “them” “do something” “at least”, otherwise “they” end up burning cars and disrupting civilisation.

Thus we got to debate matters of matter and its equal distribution among all regardless of occupation or location, and the visible Franks expressed definite satisfaction with inequality while upholding the righteousness of the French slogan “Liberté, égalité, fraternité, ou la mort! ”.

So, we end up with some having liberty, equality and fraternity while others, those untrustworthy Others, have death.

Here I reminisced about my visits to refugee camps in Africa and Asia and got utterly confused. I guess, I’ll never rise to that level of European sophistication that succeeds to marry the un-marriageable and with a clear conscience, calling it the “understanding of nuance”.

“Of course we’re for brotherhood and equality and liberty and all. But some professions, such as surgeons or politicians deserve the high income they boast, because they are specialised and then you would want your surgeon to be well-paid and efficient. You want your politicians to be well fed and happy. They won’t steal then. But no one needs expertise or sophistication (here it pops up again – sophistication!) to perform the task of the “decrotteurs”. So, they’re lucky to make whatever they make”.

Hmmmmm. Food for thought! So, it is better to give my bread to the thief before he steals it and then we won’t have crime!

Hmmmmmm. Now, what about specialists?

I immediately recalled (yeah, the less one knows and remembers – the better one sleeps) my ordeal with the tooth-mechanics that’s been gaining momentum since 1993. Those specialised charlatans haven’t been able to help me because I always had enough money to only cover only one X-ray and nothing else. In the States, in France, in Japan, in Sweden, in Canada, everywhere I went I left an un-autographed X-ray shot of my jaw. Some stole the shots, because I warned that if they couldn’t help with my pain, which is getting dangerous because it is constantly inflamed, they shouldn’t photograph me. They still manage to snap and charge and then discharge me till my financially brighter day.

Comparing the expertise of the surgeons that I cannot enjoy and looking about me on the much cleaner streets of Paris that touched me, I realised that if I were ever to accept inequality, I’d devotedly vote for the superior pay of these champions, whose work saves the lives of much larger numbers of people than the unreachable surgeons do. The depoopers effectively instill hygiene in the unhealthy and overcrowded city that would have burst out with disease. All epidemics throughout history have been linked to social factors such as the unhealthy division of resources and space and to the stress that accompanied overcrowded, overworked, and malnourished groups who spent their lives feeding and servicing the undercrowded and the overfed.

Poop-collectors of the world, unite!

But Paris also hosts dear friends and memories. Paris also harbours possibilities of new encounters, passionate and intricate, like all things French.

I arrive at the home of my friends, but they’re still at work. I crash on the stairway between second and third floors, take out my knitting and think about what it means to be here again. One of the neighbours comes out and invites me to the screening of a film that they have just finished. I leave a note on my friends’ door and go for the kind offer of Turkish coffee and film criticism. The crew is friendly and open and I am back in the Paris of my before.

Khalda’s husband came home first, but he didn’t seem pleased about his neighbours’ support of travellers. Turns out, he wasn’t pleased to learn about free-learning for children either – a reconfirmation that journalism doesn’t necessarily widen horizons or raise levels of curiosity. But I enjoyed hearing from him the French outspokenness on the French view of the world and of what they might think of unthinkable characters such as I.

It was lovely to see Khalda and her children. Sophie is a pensive and attentive 8 year old and the little Amelie –  a spirited artist, whose painting skills left their impression. Khalda is a fascinating confluence of cultures: born to an Estonian mother and Sudanese father, she spent part of her adolescence in Kuwait, then studied medicine in Russia and now raises a family in France. Just as I was sending an e-mail to my folks, her older brother, Khalid, came on skype, and I surprised him by picking up the call. We revelled in the memories of jumping around the Sudanese roofs and scarce trees as we grew up along the banks of the Nile and he told me about life in Khartoum, to which he returned after studies in Russia and which he enjoyed.

And so I got news of a country that remains an unreal dream in my memory – as unreal as it had been when I lived there.

During my brief sojourn in Paris, I hooked up with old friends, Mario and Gordana. Visited the EHESS. Then took the TGV to Lyon.

Lyon is just as it appears on French impressionist paintings: patches of blue, yellow, and green, with relaxed, un-Parisian Frenchmen playing boules, otherwise known as pétanque, or chatting over coffee on café verandahs. This made me think of the scene in Cairo, where men drank coffee, while the women ran the rest of the place. Viva la matriarchy!


At the bus-stop a talkative grandpa shared with me a historical account omitted in the official texts of how “really the French preferred  to fight on the side of the Nazis in WWII”.

“I’ll tell you this,” grandpa History proclaimed. “So many of us fought on the side of the Germans, you won’t believe. I personally, laid down Russians and God knows whom, and rightly so. Do you know how many French traitors we officially extinguished? The ones who claimed that the French didn’t want the Nazis? No, you wouldn’t know, because our government lies to you. Yeah, this dirty government would never admit the truth. France welcomed the German war. And now, patati-patata, they pretend that we were the “collaborateurs” whereas the truth is that it was them, they were the Soviet agents.”

“That’s interesting. I didn’t know all the details”.

“Of course you wouldn’t. Where did you go to school, here or in Maghreb? You know, they lie to you in Maghreb just as much”.

“I’m not from Maghreb, actually. My family is in Russia right now. I’m on the way home. Just passing by Lyon for a couple of days”.

“Tiens, tiens. From Russia, then! Well, never mind. You know it was the war. I had to do it. The Soviets were threatening us with Stalinism. Never mind.”

“Well, it’s hard not to mind. My grandfather got 8 bullets in his body and head in that war. Most of the villagers never came back… Young, strong, and brave, they all went. And many didn’t even get the chance to conceive progeny to witness their sacrifice”.

“Tiens, tiens. Never know who you’re talking to. I’d have never guessed your grandfather was in the war. Which republic was he from?”

“The Russian”.

“Tiens, tiens. Well, it was the war, you know. I had to do it. I hope you enjoy Lyon. Tiens, tiens”.

The bus arrives; we bid each other “au plaisir” and part our warring ways.

On the bus, a young man is intensely talking into a cell phone on a seat by the window. Another grandpa, toothless, trembling and tiny, armed with a walking cane climbs in at the next stop and smiles his way through to the young man. But youth is obstinate and compulsive. “Bla bla bla. Bla bla bla,” he insists into the phone and turns into the corner between the window and the seat in front intending not to see Grandpa. But, Grandpa , he has seen it all and believes in sharing. He keeps smiling and crawls up onto the young man’s lap. The young man keeps talking. Grandpa is cozy and smiling. Unfortunately, three stops later I get off, so for me the story ends as I depart from a bus bursting with laughter and merry Lyonners.

Lyon, certainly, is a friendly and lively place, and as experience proves, more cheerful towards the idea of neighbourly cooperation than Paris is.

Here’s how I found out.

Julien, a friend whom Sasha and I had met in Montreal and who now enjoys the glamour of the Riviera, was to drive to Lyon to meet me. His friend Jerome generously offered to host me and left instructions that if one of us were to arrive before he returned from work, we were to pick up the keys from his neighbour, a kindly elderly Mrs Bellenuage (this name is to camouflage her true identity). Which I did. Mrs. Bellenuage immediately expressed her best wishes for Jerome, and in so doing, revealed a load of intricate detail (yes, that again) about his life so that I felt like he had been a good friend long before I had actually met him and regardless of whether most of it (the intricate detail) was the fruit of “logical deduction” and pure compassion on the side of the good-natured neighbour. So, Jerome and I could skip polite and awkward introductions and immediately plunge into friendship. Viva the spirit of neighbourly love!

Jerome’s house is the Yellow House by Vincent Van Gogh. 1888. Oil on canvas, 72×91.5cm

I greatly enjoyed my stay in Lyon, but unfortunately I had to make haste back to Paris because I was in a rush to see my darling Lioubette and Sasha.

In Paris, Mario picked me up and drove me to his place. They actually let him get a driver’s licence! I reminded him how he failed (o.k. I won’t say how many times out of concern for his feelings) all the driving tests he had to retake in Pennsylvania. And I mean Pennsylvania: the drivers’ test there is to go straight in a PARKING LOT!, then turn in the same parking lot, then stop (we’re still in the same parking lot – never left it)! We laughed about that heartily, and if he lets me share the story, perhaps one day, you’ll laugh with us too. Anyway, I got to meet his friend Momo, who prepared such a memorable Senegalese dinner (I want to go back just for that) that made me forgive Paris all (well, almost all) of its sins. And the next day, loaded with gifts from Senegal for Liouba, Sasha, and aunt Lida, I flew to Moscow.
Layla AbdelRahim, 2006.


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