Why would I go to the funeral of a friend or relative but not all of the funerals happening in my city that day? Why would I visit my own sick child in the hospital but not the hundreds of other sick ones, too? Why do I, an American, fly the French flag after the attacks of last Friday, and not the flags of other nations who’ve suffered similar tragedies?
Because it boils down to this: personal, shared stories.
Without the French, there would be no America. Without America, there would be no France. Our very first ally, they helped us win the Revolutionary War; sold us the Lousiana Purchase; lent us their architects inspiring the beautiful, classic, timeless design of our capital city; housed and inspired many of our greatest writers, like Richard Wright, Ernest Hemingway, and F. Scott Fitzgerald; and most importantly, provided many of the philosophical frameworks on which we built our American ideals.
Few terrorist attacks in foreign lands have seized the attention of this country like the carnage in the streets of Paris, a city an ocean away but glittering in the memories of countless American honeymoons, junior years abroad and bucket-list vacations. – The New York Times
In turn, we saved them from the Germans during World War I, saved them again during World War II, and cry more for their cities and their people when, all other things equal, tragedies happen on French soil. The first thing our earliest refugees saw when immigrating to American shores was the Statue of Liberty. Our first tangible face to the world, a French face: one of our most recognizable icons, a gift from the French people to a foundling, idealistic, starry-eyed democracy. Of course we pledge their allegiance first: that’s what old friends with these kinds of intimate, shared stories do.
The first time I ever set foot on foreign soil, it was French soil. I’ll never forget that day I emerged wide-eyed in the gates at Charles de Gualle airport, July 1996, on my way to southern France to study for the summer. I’ll never forget the first time someone spoke to me directly in French and how in an instant, theory met reality and everything I learned in my years of French study alluded me for an instant, rendering me speechless as I struggled to find les mots justes.
I’ll never forget stuffing three Americans, four suitcases, and two French hosts in a Citroën not much bigger than a smart car, driving from Marseille to my French family’s apartment in Aix-en-Provence.
I’ll never forget the first time I walked down a French cobble-stoned street, presented with the golden ratio embedded in beautiful architecture, everywhere I looked.
I’ll never forget my little French room with the terracotta balcony overlooking a dozen more terracotta balconies in the Mediterranean sun. I’ll never forget the bowls of coffee every morning for breakfast and the paté-smeared French bread everyday for lunch.
I’ll never forget Corrine, Lauren and Astrid Machulka, my wonderful host family, who greeted me with a cheerful French “Coucou!” every morning when I woke up. I’ll never forget how she a single mother, and me, a single one too, used to compare notes as we drove her daughters along the sea to their father’s in Avignon for le weekend avec leur pere.
I’ll never forget meeting my dear friend Christina – my friend to this day – and how we used to make fun of the French and their condescending rudeness even though we both loved the French and everything about them. Nor how we used to laugh our brash American laughs as we imitated Texans speaking French on the curbs of the Cours Mirabeau. Our friendship, nee en France, is a true French citizen.
I’ll never forget my first French pain au chocolat and French crepe, my first topless sunbathing experience on a rock by the Coté d’Azur followed by my first cliff jumping into a deep sparkling sea. Nor my first ride on the TGV and that time in the Latin Quarter on my last night during that first summer in France, laughing and joking and speaking much more fluent French with a long table of French, who pulled us, les jolies Americaines! into their fold as we walked down the street.
I’ll never forget how that first travel abroad expanded my world and changed me forever.
Paris, je t’aime.