Monday, December 28, 2015

Noël, 2015

The Christmas holidays are never a good time if there’s no family around, though I know some people would argue that having family during holidays is the definition of stress. Me, the little family I have left is some 3,000 miles away in Paris and thereabouts. The last Christmas we spent together was in 1991, the year before my mother died.

My mom and her eldest daughter, Florence, had been tiffing, as had been the norm since the end of World War II. Flo never forgave my mother for divorcing Marcel, my mother’s first husband and the father of my two sisters. Florence blamed my father for the divorce, and the resentment lingered for decades and never faded entirely.

Flo and I, though, were great friends. I idolized her. She was a published writer whose books had been well received by critics who compared her (mistakenly, I think) to Francoise Sagan. She also managed a French rock idol, and they appeared on magazine covers with matching Porsches and mink coats.

I was working for a UN organization at the time and had reason to travel to Paris for a conference held in mid-December. I arranged to stay an extra week, and the plan was for the entire family—my mother and father, Flo and Isabelle, my other sister, and their four kids—to have lunch in my parents’ apartment.  

It went about as well as could be expected.  Flo stormed out mid-meal over an imagined insult. My mother wore her best Who, Me? look, and my four nephews, who had little liking for each other, pushed Christmas food around their plates and looked bored. Isabelle, ever the fixer, tried to fix things that could not be fixed. My father was distraught. He had been trying for four decades to get Florence to accept, if not like, him. She never would. I knew he’d be listening to my mother’s plaints for the immediate future and be blamed for not offering a solution to a situation he hadn’t created.

So a quarter-decade, later both of my parents and Florence have passed away. I spent the day before Christmas cleaning my house and spoke briefly with Isabelle who still lives in the same apartment in Paris. I haven’t seen her in several years, but we speak every other month or so and this day she tells me about the work she’s doing, about the mood in Paris after the latest terrorist atrocity, about her fears that the ultra-right anti-immigrant political party might gain power. Then she asks about Donald Trump and there’s little I can say. I can almost see her shaking her head. “Ils sont foux, ces Americains…” Yes, I agree, Americans are crazy right now.

On Christmas day I go with my friend Stacey and we have a Mediterranean meal. In the past, we’ve opted for Chinese or for a seafood buffet of doubtful freshness. This year, the meal is tasty, but I can’t stop focusing on the African man by himself at the table next to us. He might be Ethiopian or Somali, and he eats with the precise fastidiousness of an ancient European. He cuts his portions into tiny pieces; the chicken, potatoes, hummus and stewed beef occupy separate realms of his plate. He is methodical and does not look up. He is wearing a sports coat a couple of sizes too large, a blue dress shirt, and a poorly knotted tie. He sits as I do, with both hands on the table in the French fashion. Our eyes meet briefly; I smile, he does not.

Later Stacey and I take separate cars to go to the movies. As I get near the mall’s entrance, I see a homeless man standing with his back to the wall and surrounded by six or seven policeman. I don’t know what transgression he may have committed. He holds his hands out with the palms forward to show he doesn’t have a weapon. His belongings are next to him: three or four shopping bags, a sleeping bag, a knapsack, some clothes tied in a bundle.

It has started raining. The cops’ body language is aggressive. Two have their hands on their firearms. I don’t know what to do and so do nothing. I feel guilty during the entire movie, and when we leave, the homeless man is gone. Noël, 2015.

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