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© 2016 Irma Herrera

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Paris, je t'aime

June 2, 2019

Living a Dream

 

The first time I came to Europe I was 30, and I had already been a lawyer for several years. I had dreamed of travel since I was a muchachita.

 

I checked out books at the two-room public library in Alice, Texas and had travelled the world and through time -- thanks to the written word. On my first trip to Europe I visited Paris and Rome, and I fell in love with both, but I somehow felt more at home in Rome and two years later I quit my law job at MALDEF (Mexican-American Legal Defense Fund) and went to Rome for several months to study Italian and to . . . become Italian, which of course I did not.

 

All this was made possible because I had met a young researcher from Rome, Michele (pron. Mi-ke-leh) who was at UC Berkeley’s Center for the Study of Social Change for one year. I became friends with this Italian writer/academic who told me his apartment in Rome was vacant for the year he was in the SF Bay Area and I was welcome to use it (free of charge) while he was at Berkeley. At that time, I lived in San Francisco, and for several weeks, Michele stayed at my apartment while he looked for a place to live. Note this Michele is a male name, although it is also the spelling of a woman’s name.

 

I saved my money, quit my job, and went off to Rome. I studied Italian several months and my Italian was good enough to do a radio program on Chicanas in the US. Michele’s friends, including the one with a radio program on women’s rights, were activists interested in minority rights around the world. Michele wrote about African immigrants in Italy, and about genocide in Bosnia. Michele and I have remained friends for decades, and after Paris we are heading to Rome to visit him and his family -- his Japanese wife Rika (who has lived in Rome for decades) and their four children (now all young adults). We expect to make a stop in Torino to visit with other friends.

 

After Rome back in the early 1980s, I decided to become a writer. I had published one piece at that point. When I was at MALDEF, I had penned an op-ed piece on bilingual education which the NY Times published. Actually, that was my second published piece, I had written an op-ed for The University of Notre Dame’s newspaper when I was in law school, in support of affirmative action. Great, I thought, I’ll become a writer. Foolish and ignorant, but that was just as well, as I just followed my heart and started writing about things I cared about.  I did that for several years and thanks to Mary Jo McConahay, my first writing teacher, I was introduced to Sandy Close at Pacific News Services. Sandy hired me to do two pieces a month. I am forever grateful to both these amazing women. Check out Mary Jo's website, and if you've not read any of her books or newspaper pieces, learn more about her here.

 

Studying French

 

But I digress. Another dream of mine was to live in Paris and study French. One month here this summer is getting my feet wet. My spouse Mark and I are in Paris for a month, although he is not here the entire time. He is headed for a European conference on Energy Efficiency most of this week. I enrolled last week at The Alliance Française for four weeks of French classes. I’m not a true beginner, but it has been decades since I formally studied French. It is so humbling to write like a 3rd grader. Still, I am enjoying my classes, and start a slightly more advanced level on Monday.

 

The students at Alliance Français are from all over the world. Ismael I thought might be Latinx given his name and physical appearance but he’s Pakistani. This middle-aged man comes to school in a suit so I surmise he is a businessman. Madonna from London tells me she was born in Ghana. An Asian-American woman from San Francisco is a project manager in technology and her husband, a programmer. They have moved to Paris and are looking for jobs. A young woman, originally from Peru, is a graduate of San Diego State and has lived in the US since she was a girl. Her husband has a job in Paris. Others in the class include a psychologist from Buenos Aires, an architect from Venice, and an MBA student from Shanghai. It’s definitely an interesting group, and EVERYONE speaks excellent English. I joined a gym not far from my place to continue my HIIT classes (Hi Intensity Interval Training).  It seems like everyone speaks around me speaks good English when they realize my French is, shall we say, weak. No question English is the language of the world of business and technology and everyday life for many. Yet, here we are, hundreds of folks enrolled in various levels of French study. French continues to be an important language for commerce and within international organizations.

 

I just completed my first week of school and it is both exhilarating and challenging to spend four hours in class (one 15-minute break half-way) learning a language. The hard part of being a student is offset by being in Paris, where there’s always something interesting going on in public, whether it’s just observing people enjoying a picnic at Champs de Mars by the Eiffel Tower or demonstrators bringing attention to their issues.

 

 

Although I haven’t sees the Yellow Vests, the previous weekend, I did saw hundreds of police officers in full-riot gear storming and getting in formation blocking the entrance to The Opera at the Place de la Bastille, a few blocks from our house. At that time I did not know what occasioned the heavy police presence, and it was frightening to see hundreds of police cars, buses, and motorcycles. Many of the police covered their faces with black baklavas, only their eyes showing. They were equipped with full riot gear, sticks, machine guns, and shields. Only later did I learn the police presence was in response to the Yellow Vests marching towards the Bastille. Two other demonstrations last weekend, one I couldn’t determine what it was about. The other was to celebrate and thank the French people for lending a hand to the people of Biafra.

 

Beauty Everywhere and Keeping Memories Alive

 

My friend Leonard Pitt, from Berkeley, who lived in Paris many years and who has written several books about Paris, www.leonardpitt.com, (do check out his website) says the best time to see Notre Dame is in the early morning when the light is so beautiful. So today at 6 am I headed out the door and walked there. Police officers with machine guns are posted at every entrance for worker crews restoring the Cathedral since the terrible fire several weeks ago. Even behind the scaffolding Notre Dame Cathedral is a site to behold. Paris inspires awe.

 

At this time of day, few are around–some joggers and of course the municipal workers cleaning the streets. (All the ones I saw were men and one woman of African ancestry). Like in the US, dark skinned people doing the work of cleaning and caring. Brown women pushing carriages with light skinned children, and brown men cleaning streets and delivering Uber eats.

 

I am struck by the sheer number of beautifully maintained parks tucked away in the various neighborhoods. Many a park is named after a writer, or philosopher. Some honor children from that neighborhood, deported and killed at Nazi death camps with the complicity of the Vichy government. I read their names: Albert Fefer, 3, Lejzer Fefer, 2, Paulette Fefer, 2 months. I imagine their parents were killed too. The word deported so heavy and ominous, and my thoughts turn to the thousands of children separated from their parents at the Mexico-US border. What a terrible thing to do to these families.

 

I meander at random and a see a plaque in a large building where Arnaud Marty-Lavauzelle, an AIDS activist, had resided during his life. So important to remember, and pay tribute.

 

I am so lucky to have the opportunity to take several weeks from my day to day life and pluck myself away from the Bay Area and to experience something totally new. Someday, if and when your life circumstances permit, give yourself this gift.

 

A bientôt!

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