tale of exile by frog
I DREAMT OF ESCAPING PARIS for five long years. While I finished "growing up," I went daily from place to place between rows of heavily armed cops. May'68 had failed and martial law was in effect.
May '68 had been a month of wildcat strikes and student demonstrations turning into a general strike. Imagine a whole country (50 million inhabitants) immobilized where business was concerned, but effervescent in political and social activities. Parisians met daily in the streets for discussions on the theme of the "quality of life."There was Viet-Nam, there were sit-ins, armed confrontations with the special national police trained for "riots" (Compagnie Republicaine de Securite aka CRS.) The walls bloomed with graffiti: "Culture is like jam, the less you have, the more you stretch it;" "Culture is a carnivorous plant;"."Plus je fais l'amour, plus je veux faire l'amour; plus je fais la revolution et plus je veux faire la revolution." Pardon my French: "The more I make love, the more I want to make love; The more I make revolution, the more..." Barricade building (thanks to abandoned street equipment) brought about the slogan: "Under the pavement you'll find the beach." (Sous les paves, la plage!) There were unauthorized street concerts, a piano was dragged from the dusty depths of La Sorbonne, there was spontaneous friendship, mutual support; generosity abounded. I was born to a larger reality after a sixteen-year sleep.
Then the sacrosanct Summer Vacation intervened. Paris exchanged its usual population every summer for tourists and a skeleton crew of miserably paid North Africans to keep the streets clean. Despite promises that "the summer would be hot" (L'ete sera chaud!), repression set in (I was thrown out of high school at the end of 1969 and spent my last high school year in a private school), people went back to work and the social scene got grim as the government tightened the screws.
Freedom of the press is not a "right" in France so the government succeeded in running underground presses out of existence. "Charlie Hebdo," my favorite weekly, was restricted when its front cover made fun of the then-recently dead De Gaulle. It could be sold at a magazine stand only if it was kept below the counter, shamefully out of sight. Meanwhile Playboy and its kin were blazing on center stage and people got 18 months jail-time for selling the ludicrous maoist rag La Cause du Peuple.
I left in 1971, at age 19, in pursuit of the dream of a sane society in which mutual aid was a reality. I had no concrete plan or methodology. I just hied out and struck north: aurora borealis, uncharted territories, wilderness a gogo... That got me stuck in Germany for two years, tramping one year and the next as a foreign language teacher in a high school. Germany wasn't terribly different from France. I was at home despite an ornery attitude towards the German language and history (they did kill my grandfather).
I experienced German racism in one unforgettable scene in 1972. At that time, foreigners were required to check in with the authorities at regular intervals. My two American roomies and I showed up one cold winter day in Biberachan-der-Eiiss to validate our papers. A minor bureaucrat was shoving papers at a bewildered Turkish "Gastarbeiter': "Kannst du kein Deutsch verstehen?! ! !?':("Can't you understand German ?")
I got angry and forgot the little German I thought I had, called the guy a Nazi (he looked like one, recycled) and more, in every language I could summon and demanded to see his "superior." The pathetic little man crumbled. He let go of the Turks, processed my American friends and me real fast and gentle, apologized to me personally and we left. I was shaken by the experience... but not enough to anticipate similar problems yet to come.
In 1973 I "emigrated" to the US of A. I put it in quotes marks because I didn't realize it at the time. I was just checking the place out. I had a lot of informed reservations about it. My emigration problems started in Stuttgart, then in West Germany, where I naively told the bureaucrats that I was going to work in the States (one has to eat, ya know). Despite the fact that a friend had pretended to need my specific services, I was refused a work visa. So I asked for a tourist visa, sufficient to investigate the place for a while and decide on further action. This visa was immediately refused on the grounds that I had given away my real motives: possible immigration.
Not a whit daunted, I drove to Munich and applied for a tourist visa, answering "NO!" to the question: "Have you ever applied for a tourist visa to the U.S. before?" For several hours, I watched tourists get their passports stamped with no problem. When my turn came, a flurry of activity preceded the arrival of a prim female army security officer who bade me accompany her for a special interview. Of course I thought Stuttgart had communicated to Munich that I was an undesirable fake tourist. Then I thought about my political activities in high school and on the Nanterre campus since 1968. I was freaked but had to face up.
To my relief, the big deal was that I was a French citizen going to the U.S. from Germany! Apparently a highly suspicious move. Why didn't I go from France? Because I happened to live in Germany. This was long before the concept of a Euro-community had made much inroad on public consciousness.
The next question was "why did I want to visit the States?" Naively I stated the truth. I had shared my digs with two Americans who had made visiting their country (the famed "bastion de la reaction") sound like an interesting proposition. Then she asked: "Are you going back with him?" Startled about the concept of "going back," I blurted "which him?" It came out that my "American" accent was too perfect for this uniformed woman to believe hat I had never been to the States before. I was most assuredly lying about previous visits indicating dark and possibly terroristic reasons for my "return." I managed to convince my interrogator that the only English-speaking country I had ever seen was Great Britain (several times) and that I had no hope of reproducing or even approximating their accent.
Relentlessly, she went on: "Do you plan to marry him?" The thought, at twenty-one, of being married at all, much less married to my current American lover was funny. I laughed ...too hard. This displeased my interviewer who saw nothing funny about marriage. (She was right.) I assured her I was way too young to consider marriage seriously, especially to an American. This did not amuse her much but she stamped my passport with a three month visa and released me to the July sunlight of Munich. What a relief! A month later, I was in Colorado, culture-shocked and bewildered about my decision. While passing the New York border guards, my visa was cut down to one month on monetary grounds, despite my explanation that the cash I carried ($300) was just pocket money. I was to live with a good Mormon family in Colorado and could wire home for more pocket money if needed. No go. "America is expensive" I was told as my French passport was inscribed with slashes and lots of red ink. That was OK though, since meanwhile my boyfriend had successfully smuggled some hashish past the whiskers of his border guard. We'd worry about my status later. The dope was safe! Also, he was the one who had suggested, after my failure to obtain a visa in Stuttgart, that Munich was the next option. So I believed he would come up with some solution. I was soon to taste the fruit of his solution: marriage.
One month passed in the blink of an eye. I hated the States with a will. Everything hurt, from the discovery that broccoli was not some form of pasta to taking a dislike to almost everyone I met. Were all Americans bigots, patriots and political dolts? One month was not enough time. The place was bewilderingly vast. You could drive nonstop for three days from Pennsylvania to California, yet the language , except for accents, did not change. And in America as in Germany aliens had to register once a year with la migra as to whereabouts and occupations. Every January, TV screens reminded whoever would listen that aliens were to be accounted for.
My "boifurendo" (boyfriend, for those who don't twig Japenglish) kept insisting that marriage would be painless, a mere formality that would solve my visa problems once and for all. My parents and almost all my friends' parents had divorced which made me very suspicious of the institution. A bit of research showed that it was a business contract designed to ensure that the woman's property (where she had any or even rights to it) and children would hence become the property of the husband. Divorce voided the bit about "'til Death do us part," except in the matter of property. There is no "parting" of the powerful from their property. Ask the world's impoverished female masses.
On September 10, 1973 I married the boyfriend. I wore jeans to the courthouse where I was handed a congratulatory "gift" for brides. Talk about poisoned apples: it contained mouthwash, douche packets, aspirin and many coupons for sanitary products to keep you fresh and sexy for your lawful hubby. No condoms, though. By November I knew I was pregnant. Decision making time. This kid felt real in more ways than one.. Despite misgivings about the status of my relationship with my husband, it was now or never. I did it. I gave birth to this wondrous new being and never regretted it despite the adventures to come. Giving birth is the greatest high one can experience. Trust me.The culture shock spread. Being married to an American was a desperate experience. Exchanging Paris for Fort Collins, CO, USA, was a bad idea. Let me give an example of cultural un-ease. As a teenager I had a bout with hypoglycemic perturbations. I passed out if I didn't watch the blood sugars. I passed out in the weirdest places and times: Demonstrations, history classes, trains, etc... People had always helped; Many knew the simple solution to this coma: sugar cubes in their paper wrappers, lifted from restaurants.
I passed out in downtown Fort Collins on December 24, 1973. Everyone was busy with last minute shopping for Xmas. No one stopped to offer help. I got looks which worried me: not at all the European looks I was used to but looks that threatened to be followed by cowboy boots grinding my face further into the snow.
Later, friends explained the "why" of this asocial behavior. I could have sued anyone who stopped to help, they said. I was horrified at the weirdness of the thought: In Europe, it is a crime not to assist persons in danger. Thus I was taught that survival in the USA has different parameters. This incident effected a cure. Hallelujah! (Or was it physical maturity?) When my daughter was born I'd wanted to call her Solitude. My husband nixed the name. I became a wife. I lost my name. I was X's mother and Y's wife. It threatened my identity and I became deeply depressed, even suicidal. I divorced instead of dying, both messy propositions. I was isolated, penniless and naive. I got screwed. Hubby got custody. I took the pro bone lawyer assigned to my case by Legal Services (later killed by Reagan's funding starvation of social services) all the way to the Supreme Court of Colorado for misrepresentation of the laws. His pudgy be-ringed little hand was slapped: He had been "ill-advised" to take money from the wrong party. Illegal? Maybe but I did not regain custody and am still in debt to boot.
From Mudhole to Lily Pad
I was divorced on my twenty-fifth birthday. March 10 has been a strange double celebration ever since. At last I could unfold my own wings again and resume my quest for the foreign grail.
I moved to Berkeley because the university had a better language program, especially Oriental languages, than Boulder U. could ever hope to develop. I wanted to go to China, armed with a smattering of mandarin and historical understanding.
Since '68, I had held the belief that the Chinese model might be a pointer to future societies: Share and Care, bro'! I had great admiration for the accomplishments of the Maoist revolution; it ain't easy to take a huge, backwards agricultural country into the age of information at a single bound. I believed the propaganda.
When "normalization" occurred in 1979 (keep in mind that France "recognized" China in 1958). I thought I should obtain an American passport to avoid a repeat of my Munich adventure on a larger scale. I filed for U.S. citizenship in'80. Due to changing immigration laws and the impending "pardon" granted to illegal aliens and their employers, it took a couple of years before I was notified by mail that I was to take a proficiency exam at the Immigration and Naturalization Office (INS where S is for Service--don't sneer) in San Francisco. No problem. I was getting to be less naive by then, but not enough. At the appointed time and place, I seemed to be the only white person fluent in the language and basic political organization which we all were to be quizzed on. I coached a couple of panicked South American women, was called to the bench" and promptly forgot you had two senaturds per state or whatever. Still I passed. A couple more years' wait ensued.
In 1984 a phone call woke me from slumber. A directive had been received at one of my old addresses which warranted the intervention of yet another lawyer. The pal sounding the warning was in the know: as a law student, he had a teacher specializing in immigration. I quickly visited her. She was as puzzled by the strange notice from INS as I was. We decided to go and see.
So on July 14, 1984, my daughter, lawyer and I dressed in unlikely skirts and headed for our rendezvous. That's where and when the shit hit the fan. First the INS lawyer ejected the kid from this meeting on the grounds of "hardship to the child." Then "my" lawyer declared that it was a Public meeting: he'd better state his reasons for ousting the kid. The guy explained that tough sex questions were to be asked. I laughed... Hard. The INS lawyer- flunky did not think it funny. He was right. The kid came back in and grabbed my hand, which she played with throughout my interrogation.
It was a humorless interlude. After two hours of questioning, it was obvious that a private letter of "denunciation" was at the root of my troubles. The INS lawyer flunky declined to state the identity of his informant but it was not necessary: Only my daughter's father could have done such a thing. I was accused of being "to the left of the French Communist Party" and of being a lesbian.
The U.S. of A. barred "known" leftists and homos from visiting this country until recently (The McCarran- Waiter Act was repealed in 1990), and certainly would not grant them citizenship. You don't want more commie gays voting, do you? There was no appeal to the INS decision. The truth is no defense. One private letter of denunciation was enough to bar me from citizenship. I am not inclined to try again. The lawyer, my daughter and I shared a "celebratory" toast after the INS session. Eight years old at the time, my daughter was upset and asked many questions. How to explain inequity to the innocent? We had an interesting discussion on the subject of "lying," its origins (authority), its uses (self-defense) and the possible neurosis, hypocrisy ascendant, which reliance on lies could bring.
In return she delighted us with the following story: "Mom, do you know what I was doing with your hand?" I did not know the meaning of her magical manipulations. So she demonstrated: folding four fingers of my hand against the palm, she left the middle finger upright and pointing at authority "avec emphase."
Talking with numerous exiles from different parts of the globe brought me to the conclusion that exporting oneself is hard work. You'll never fit snugly in any one culture again. The grass is never greener on the other side. Society's problems are global. One's interaction is perforce local. The locale is less important than the will to achieve the improbable: quality of life!
It is doubtful that I'll ever get to immerse myself in China. I could barely do it in the US. The effort to jump across one more pond and sever all ties to the known cultural universe is too much for me. I have accepted my limitations. Even though American friends will tell you that I have become an American, I am in fact just a Frog at Odds.