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Thursday, March 10, 2011

In Search of an Island

When my ex boyfriend and I first came to France, we stayed in a friend's apartment who was out of town on tour with his band. We dragged all our suitcases up five floors of stairs and I unwittingly carried a suitcase with kitty litter in it, not knowing that the suitcase was open. There was a trail of kitty litter following me and my boyfriend, exhausted from our long flight, cleaned it up as best as he could before we went to bed.

The next morning, on our way out to grocery shop, we ran into the building busybody and self-appointed concierge. He was furious and yelling at us. My French was pretty limited at the time, but I figured out that he was angry about the kitty litter because it has salt in it and can ruin the wood floors and that he had gotten it on his shoes and tracked it into his apartment. He said he spent the morning mopping the stairs and cleaning his apartment. All I could do was say how sorry I was and listen to his diatribe. He finally calmed down and asked where we were from and I told him the United States. His face changed. Suddenly he was all friendly-like. Thank God. We were able to escape him that morning and from time to time would run into him. He was always friendly, but also strange.

One day, when it was very cold outside, I noticed that all the windows in the stairwell were wide open, on every floor. So, I closed them on my way down the stairs. Of course, he caught me doing it. "No no no!" He cried, as he went back and reopened them all. I tried to remain smiling so as to escape him quickly, but he needed to explain to me why we must keep all the windows open. "It's because those foreigners have moved in," he said with a sneer, "and we have to get rid of their smell." He was talking about a North African family who lived across from him on the third floor. George Bush was still president at that time, so I imagine that Mr. busybody thought that because I was American, I must hate those dark people as much as he did.

It was also the time of the French presidential elections. France has an interesting system where a multitude of candidates can run for president and there is a first election where the two front runners are determined by popular vote. Then a second election takes place a couple of weeks later to decide between those two. The third runner-up holds quite a bit of power, as he decides which of the two will get his party's vote. Sarkozy and socialist Ségolène Royal were the two front runners. Third place was occupied by Jean-Marie Le Pen, an extreme-right conservative and nationalist. Of course, when you hear nationalist, you can just assume that he's anti-immigrant. And of course, you know he threw his votes towards Sarkozy, as a socialist in the presidential seat was unthinkable to Le Pen. Sarkozy, probably driven by his own beliefs and also pandering to the extreme right to maintain their vote, proceeded to cancel social programs intended to calm the troubles in Paris immigrant neighborhoods through partnership and education, and decided to use threats and force to "manage the problems." He promoted police thuggery versus police and public cooperation. Using the fear of the outsider, this time Muslims, to stir up support from the extreme-right's base, he's now instituted a burqa ban. This should please the nationalists.

At the front door of my friend's apartment building a few years ago, after my lesson on the need for open windows and the evils of the darker side of humanity, Mr. Building Busybody started rambling on and on about the elections. It was a natural segue from his hatred of the outsiders (oh and by the way, he was Czechoslovakian or something) to his love for Le Pen. What a big surprise.

Today, as the Republican party in my own country throw candidates like pasta against the wall to see which one will stick, I fear for the 2012 election outcome. With this morning's news about the Wisconsin Republicans jamming through their union busting bill and NPR's chief stepping down because of another "sting" by that snide little bastard O'Keefe, my stomach is turning. But these stomach problems aren't new for me. They started with my disappointment with Obama and the Democrats squandering their 2-year majority and now the cramping sets in as I watch with horror as the religious right and corporate kings take over America and mean-spirited buffoons like Limbaugh, Palin and Beck dominate the media and lead the nation's discourse.

I thought I escaped this horror story by moving to France. But I was sorely mistaken. No matter how much the stereotype of France as a socialist country is accepted by the ignorant and misinformed, the extreme right is on the rise in this country and according to public opinion polls, Le Pen's daughter, Marine, could beat Sarkozy in the upcoming election. Just like Democrats in the US, the socialist party here in France can't get their collective (pun intended) shit together, so I don't see any hope of a candidate of value coming from them. No matter who the candidates are, I've discovered recently, as my French improves and as I am helping an American friend of mine build her legal defense to fight both the kidnapping of her child by its French father and a fraudulent criminal case filed against her by the same person, that the outsider, and not only of the North African variety, is disliked here. This hatred lies in the hearts of the French people and is easily stoked by candidates to win votes.

I met a young girl in her twenties the other day. She's obviously brilliant, speaks several languages - English, French and Chinese - is passionate about soldiers and the making of war and is an avowed neoconservative. We argued about war. I said, "But what about the millions of people displaced and the hundreds of thousands of innocent people dead from the Iraq war?" And she replied that people die all the time from many things, so what's the big deal? She also said that there are far too few of her type of people around. I replied, "No, there are far too many of you." I also met a young girl of the same age who told me that she had lived for a year on an island, just below Thailand, that is dedicated to people living a life of "voluntary simplicity." I hadn't heard that term before. She explained that it's like a societal version of Burning Man. It's an alternative to Capitalism and these people are dedicated to a life that's founded on collaboration rather than competition.

I think I may need to find that island.

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