Un Emigré à Madison
On Monday night, I got a surprise call from my Awesome Aunt Brenda, the emergency room nurse, who was in town for a health-care conference, and happened to have a night free. (OK, she bowed out of a boring reception on the off chance that we'd be able to hook up. She's cool like that.) I picked her up at her hotel on the west side, and she insisted on hearing "all about France" in the car, as I attempted to make it across town without too many manual transmission mistakes. (I did pretty well; only stalled out once.) We talked about culture, food, and of course, politics, and compared some of the interesting similarities and differences between the two countries. She was especially interested to hear about the issues of racism in France, and wanted to know what some of the reasons were that there is such a disparity between ethnic groups in both of our countries.
After walking Lucy, we headed over to the Weary Traveler Freehouse, and continued our conversation with Dr. B, who was waiting there, having an after-class glass of wine with his friend and mentor. After Marc left, I hailed the waiter, and ordered wine for us to enjoy with our dinner.
"Excuse me, could we get three glasses of Côte du Rhône, please?"
The waiter looked surprised, agreed, and said, "you have an excellent accent!"
I smiled, and said over my shoulder, "Well, we just got back from a year in Paris...", feeling quite smug and cosmopolitan, I admit.
"Great!" he said, and rushed off to put in our order, his frizzy hair bobbing out underneath his trendy trucker hat.
We continued to discuss the issues of the day, our President, the Middle East, energy issues, and Brenda's daughter Amanda (my cousin) and son-in-law, Chad, who are in Iraq as we speak. As we ate our incredibly delicious meal (Madison plug: go to the Weary Traveler--it's great!!! end of plug), we never lacked for subjects of conversation, as is the norm when we're with Brenda.
As we were finishing, the waiter came over again, and asked how we had liked living in France. We told him we loved it, and were pleased to find a few cheeses from France at the Willy Street Co-Op, a few blocks away. "Oh, you should really check out Whole Foods. They have a very good selection," he said, and listed a few of his favorites, mentioning that the cheeses were seasonal, so you needed to return regularly and watch their stock.
"Where are you from?" I asked, having a hard time placing his accent myself.
"Oh!" he said, "France!"
"Really!?!" I was quite surprised. He didn't have the French je ne sais quoi that I had grown accustomed to; or at least, it was hidden behind his über-cool thrift-store plaid shirt. "Do you like it here? Why did you leave?"
"I love Madison. I first came here about 8 years ago, to visit a friend, and came back as soon as I could. It's a great town. I had to get out of France. I couldn't go anywhere there. The racism."
Brenda looked shocked. "Racism?" she asked, "but... you're not... I mean..."
"Yeah," he said. "My father is Algerian. I had nothing but trouble there. No jobs, stopped all the time by the police for no reason, no chance. Here, I am just a guy. I am me. I can work, I can be myself, people don't stare at me with hatred, and I can just be happy. There, though I am French, I am still Algerian. I was born and raised in France, but it doesn't matter. I will always be discriminated against. I hate it. I never want to go back."
He told us of his experiences during the aftermath of September 11th, when he was forced to leave the US. "I went to St. Martin, in the French West Indies, because it's officially France, but it's not. People there are much more laid back, not nearly as racist. And I waited. I wanted to come back here. I like it here. People treat me with respect. They don't assume I am bad because my eyes are black, my skin is a little darker and my hair is black and curly."
"They still stop me," he continued, "every time I go home. Police. They pull me over for no reason, and they take my ID. Since my first name is English, my mom chose an English surname for me, and my last name doesn't necessarily sound Algerian, though it is, they think my ID is fake and I stole it. Every time. I am so tired of it. So tired of being treated like I am not good enough."
"But I like it here. I have a degree from the culinary school, and I have lots of education--I was here on a lot of student visas. Just kept going to school! Now I work here, bartending and serving, spend time with my friends, and just live my life."
He invited us to come back, and offerred to help us practice our french with him whenever we liked.
"I'm behind the bar Monday, Wednesday and Sunday," he said, smiling, "and I play a lot of French music-- house, rock, folk and lots of other stuff."
As we drove home from dropping Brenda back at her hotel, Dr. B and I discussed our new acquaintance. We both were glad that our "take" on the racial tensions in France was pretty much in agreement with Cedric's view of his homeland, and we decided to take his advice and head to Whole Foods soon for some fromage français.
"He is definitely a french man, though," said Dr. B, as he was pulling into our street.
"Why?" I asked.
"He may have invited both of us to come practice our french with him, but it was pretty clear that he was meaning you, pretty lady."