France, Politics, Populism

Dialogue with a Frexiter — loss of centrist appeal amid the wave of nationalism in the EU

During the men’s FIFA World Cup 2018, I was following the results of every game with an avid interest like I’ve always been. Gone are the crazy days of bickering, taunting, goading your friends about their favourite team’s performance. Now we live hundreds, and in my case, thousands of miles away; but the same excitement still remains, as we replace direct communications with social media. Once I came across a meme that it’s not France, but Africa that has gone into semifinals for the first time. With immigration and vain nationalism close to my heart, I replied stating the obvious that they were all born in France. The discussion ended there. A few weeks later, after Les Bleus lifted the cup for the second time, I saw another piece of news, but this time in France, with a title «C’est l’Afrique qui a gagné». Although on the Africa rhetoric, there is a positive angle many tried to highlight — that France football team represented a great example of an inclusive society, neither version of the memes circulated was acceptable. It was perhaps less shocking seeing such a meme in a different country than one going around in social media in France. And that’s just after they have won the World Cup.

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A few weeks later I met a French contact I have known for last two years. We had many interactions but not a tête-à-tête as such. Trying to find a bit more about France and French life, I thought it would be an easy start to talk about Brexit and find out what the view is sur le continent. When M. Ch’ti (imaginary name, of course) said in his opinion UK will be better off because it’ll be able to source goods from anywhere else, I thought something must be amiss. The rest of the conversation was somewhat like this:

C: And here, you’re looking at one of the supporters for French Brexit.

Me: A French Brexit! But why?

C: Because EU has too much control over the French people and I think it will be good for France to be outside the EU.

Me: There might be a point, but why would you walk away from the world’s largest economic zone? What’s the cost of it? Look at the UK.

C: Of course Brexit is a lesson for French people as well. They need to be ready to negotiate straight away.

Me: I know Macron said under his presidency if there was a referendum, France may well have voted to leave. But is that true? Is that the sentiment?

C: Well, a lot of people think that. Also, we are paying into EU economy so our salaries will be higher.

Me: What do you mean? In what way?

C: EU has been a vanity project for the Germans. They were worse off before EU, unlike the French economy that was doing better.

Me: I found the actual value of the Euro is quite different in different countries. I found it quite surprising how that unbalance was allowed to happen. If you have the same currency, it should be the role of the EU to make sure that the purchasing power should be the same as well, or at least similar.

C: Yes, I remember when Euro was first introduced there was a complicated chart and people just charged anything they pleased.

Me: So do you think outside EU, wages in France will be better? Do you think with a smaller market, the French economy will have to offer a lot more to big corps to appear lucrative to them? Every country will have to follow the Irish model of offering tax havens. That will only benefit a few compared to the mass.

C: Yes because the French economy was better at the time when we joined Euro and to avoid the effect on the economy, they put a cap on wages. I believe once outside EU, we will have a lot more negotiating power especially with our close ties with African nations.

Me: Ah yes the ex-French colonies.

C: Yes, just like there are many ex-colonies the UK can benefit from. And also, not just business, there will be less expenses on security, with all these jihadists, and it’s been crazy in France the last few years…and it’s the same in the UK as well I’ve noticed.

Me: Don’t think the security expenses will come down, and besides, if France exits, you’ll lose all the access to Europol. But true, UK and France have been biggest targets on the list of the terrorists.

C: It’s just crazy. And you need to look at the profile of these people. They lead western lifestyle, drink, smoke, go to nightclubs and then one day they get the illumination that I have to kill people now. The government needs to be stricter about who they let in. The UK has got a much stronger immigration policy than in France. You can just come in and disappear from the system.

Me: It’s not that it doesn’t happen here either, but much less I believe. But you need surveillance on the terror suspects. I believe for the attacks in Bataclan, and in Nice, the attackers were known to the authorities?

C: Yes but there’s a bit conspiracy going on. They want to appease the human rights organisations but they aren’t worried about the general public. There are people who go to Syria, to Iraq, they fight with the jihadists and come back and we just say yes, welcome back and they then disappear before making an attack again.

Me: it’s much stricter here, I mean incidents do happen but they are under heavy surveillance I believe, and some are charged as they come back.

C: That’s the right thing to do. In fact, they should be turned away and we should tell them, go back to where you went fighting.

Me: You can’t take their citizenship away, you can charge them.

C: And then they go to jail and convert other people so they blow themselves up. There is a big cover-up.

By this time I started to wonder what must be the equivalent of Daily Express in France and whether I’m talking to a reader. A well-timed interlude arrived in the shape of an omelette. I tried to change the topic to speak about the last holiday in France.

Me: I thought I’d come and see your office when we were on holiday.

C: Where did you go? In Disneyland?

Me: No, just north of Paris. It’s a place near Compiègne.

C: Ah I know. Very nice place. Very green. Did you see the big palace?

Me: Yes it was awesome. And we liked Soissons.

C: You know there is a place in Compiègne where the Germans surrendered the first big war, and during the second, when they defeated France, they wanted the treaty signed at the same place.

Me: Yes the Versailles treaty. We went to that place in Clarière d’armistice.

C: You know that part of France is so beautiful and it’s the cradle of France. It’s very green. And l’île de France actually comes from this region where the old Frankish kingdom used to be.

Me: I did wonder a long time back why Paris is called that name. I thought it’s all the rivers around it.

C: Yes it’s confusing, you call it the Isle of France but there is no island. But that region hasn’t changed with time, the houses, way of life everything just remained the same.

Me: We really enjoyed there and definitely will go back.

C: That part of Paris is beautiful, around the river Oise. Well, there are other areas that are not so good…

Me: That’s probably the same in every big city. London has some notorious boroughs. What sort of problem are there in Paris?

C: It’s the Japanese mafia.

Me: I see, what sort of problem is there? Gang violence?

C: Yes, mainly. Recently Japan government has a big cultural event in Paris so they had to send people to clean up some of the areas.

Me: Sounds crazy.

C: Yes. Paris used to do such a nice place. And now it’s dirty, full of graffiti, gangs…I was away for a few years, and the first time I went back to Paris, I was horrified. And now you go to Eiffel Tower, it’s covered with security, it doesn’t feel the same.

Me: Yes last year we went there. We just wanted to go to the garden, but even then you have to go through security, so we didn’t bother in the end.

C: It’s a shame, I know it’s needed so deranged people don’t blow us up.

Me: Yes, but in Paris, after so many attacks, you see armed guards and you feel secure that the government is doing something. We don’t have any armed guards.

C: That’s just a decoy. The government can do a lot more. This Macron is useless.

Me: I thought he’s quite liked in France at the beginning? I know he made a few unpopular moves, especially with unions…

C: Macron is secretly building an army. It’s not French national army but his own army. No president has ever done that…well maybe Charles de Gaul during the Algerian war, but that was a different time and he was heavily criticised for it. But what’s Macron’s motive? Nobody knows.

Me: That’s bizarre. What’s his motive? Is he planning a coup? You’d understand when you’re in opposition but he’s the president of the country!

C: Macron is an awful choice. People were besotted by him, but now they can see his true colours. The whole of Europe has become pacifist. I don’t like it now.

Me: Well the EU is above all an economic union. There are a lot of contradictions amongst its member states and a lot of scepticism between each other. It will eventually fail because of the inherent differences between the countries. Just think about Eurovision.

C: Haha yes that is a big farce now. But the biggest challenge is Europe has to close its doors. We can not afford any more people.

Me: But there’s plenty of room, it depends on the governments approach and how much they engage with the population to tell them why they need to help the refugees.

C: I agree with you, they need to be helped, but there should be a limit. Some say it’s in the bible, if somebody comes to your house, you should let them in. But that’s the concept of a pilgrimage. You left them to stay, get rest, then they will be away. Bible doesn’t say that when someone comes to your house you feed them for the lifetime.

At this point, I was beginning to despair. I was wondering whether to prolong a painful discussion by bringing colonialism and its effects into the argument. But before I did, he carried on-

C: And then you host them, then they’ll do petty crimes, go to jail and be converted. Then they become jihadists trying to cut your throat. They could just go back to fight the countries they came from. But they want to bring the war in here.

Me: But that’s what governments are for. They should ensure that people coming here are not socially isolated. And that’s why it can’t just be a government process. The people will need to get involved in that process.

C: Or I have a better solution. They want to come to France? Let them come to France. But send them to a remote island in Pacific that is owned by France. I bet you have places like that with UK as well…sovereign territories.

Me: Yes, the old colonies…

The conversation died off then. The omelette was gone, and it was time to go back to a more comfortable business. But that conversation cast some doubts on the demographics of the populism supporters. And it also cast shadows on the long-term future of a unified Europe. C is undoubtedly a Marine Le Pen supporter from his views about migrants and how to solve the terrorism issue. But he is not a working class, what one would expect a populism supporter to be. He’s not deprived or oppressed by the system and venting the failure of the state towards the scapegoats. One may say based on a sample size of one, my statistical generalisation of French middle-class educated population is crass. It doesn’t hold any credibility. And I know that well. But I’d expected that when I start discussing Brexit with someone from the EU, the general reaction would be — “I pity you, what on Earth were you thinking”? With my first sample doing a volte-face, I’m now worried if more and more people turn out to be closet fascists.

But from another angle, it just proves another thought I’ve had for a while. That the liberal and the left are not loud enough because they have mixed loyalties. The general vibe from the public is that the western society is consumeristic. Aligning a party or oneself too far from that stance would alienate themselves from the public, and they’ll lose their appeal instantly. At the same time, we are prisoners of our own vices. While talking about equality, we still want to enjoy life — holidays, technology, property, investments. Due to that hypocrisy, we cannot go gung-ho against a society that still is failing and widening the gap between its layers. On the other hand, the populism campaign is driven by a rosy picture that’ll never happen. Nor that it ever was. But it’s also characterised by its campaign of fear. And hatred. It’s very direct. There is a culprit, an enemy that you point your finger at. The message from the populist leaders is direct and unequivocal. They froth malice as they open their mouth. They don’t give a toss about political correctness. They tell their followers what to do. And the public meekly comply. Meanwhile, somewhere in the virtual world, a liberal/centrist/moderate expresses their dissent by clicking a dislike or angry button. Or they sign a petition.

On the other hand, the liberal engagement has been feeble, to say the least. Apart from a lack of conviction from our part, the liberal ideology always assumes a moral and intellectual high ground and most of the believers consider themselves much above than getting meddled into a debate. The lack of conviction was apparent prior to Brexit vote — if you asked a remainer, you’d get an answer “that’s the only logical choice isn’t it? I mean who in their right mind would want to leave?”. But when you spoke to a leaver, they always spoke with great conviction, statistics, confidence. All that they said were false because they have been lied to, but the damage was done. The reluctance of the liberals to engage in dialogue with the people who held a view contrary to theirs has already caused enough havoc in the world politics. Yet, we haven’t learned from that mistake, and still look at the world from the ivory tower of our own ideology and think how stupid the other camp is. We don’t try to see their thought process, we don’t see their desperation where they’d believe anything as long as there is someone to blame.

It’s not that there weren’t fascists before Brexit happened. But they didn’t have the platform, the limelight they always wanted. Most of their activities were limited to bravado after the terrorist attacks or commemorating their fascist ideologues. Brexit and Trump gave them a new impetus. It gave them hope, and within two years, we have FN as the second largest party in France, the Netherlands barely scraped through being led by Geert Wilders, as was Austria. Hungary did, in the end, get a right-wing PM, and Italy sleepwalked into a pandemonium in the form of a coalition between nationalist and far-right parties. The European states are becoming partisan, forgetting the virtues and the history that brought them together. The only two leaders that stayed firm against the tide are Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron who constantly spoke about European integration.

It’s not that Macron has no flaws, but during the discussion with C, I expected, like most of the French population, he’d be pro-Macron and inclined towards a vision of EU for the coming years and share their disbelief at the decision taken by the British public. I think beyond Macron, this expectation stems from my idea of France, the epicentre of the modern philosophy and renaissance, from Descartes to Camus. In that biased vision, I think every French person upheld the three basic virtues — liberté, égalité, fraternité. And it’s for that reason when someone didn’t fit into that stereotype, it came as a surprise to me. Perhaps C was just an outlier who doesn’t represent the views of middle-class Parisians, perhaps I have just picked the biggest odd as my first sample. Perhaps, I need to speak to more French acquaintances. I wish I had the same luck with the lottery in picking the odds.

Going back to the meme that made me think about this first, it is clear that people don’t think before endorsing casual racism. It’s also apparent that there is an undercurrent of growing hostile environment for the migrants, waning tolerance between communities and a disbelief over the EU. I wonder how many more distress signals would we need before we start to work on it. Before it’s too late.

PS: I’m going to meet a few Italians soon. Some from the North and some from the South. It’d be enlightening to see their views on Lega Nord. And on the coalition. And on the man who once introduced populism to Italy vowing to drag the country out of the mess it was in, and his famous lines:

E Forza Italia
É tempo di credere
Dai Forza Italia
Che siamo tantissimi

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France, Life experience, Travel

Holiday from hell — journal of a misadventure

I seldom write about travel, and when I do, it’s only about spectacular experiences. I have never written about misadventures that caused so much anxiety and grief that I wonder why we carried on when things started to go wrong. But when you have such an experience that lasted from the time of beginning the journey to the very end, and beyond, I thought on the hindsight, it was an adventure worth remembering, even though we were not that amused when it all happened.

It began when we started our journey to France on a mid-June Monday. We had already moved from our Kent home, so we stayed overnight in Ramsgate. In the morning, as we left for the ferry from Dover, it was a last minute dash because of the roadworks along the way. As we were waiting for the ferry, I realised we forgot to book the European breakdown cover. I made a last minute frantic call to the breakdown provider (I had three covers those days, don’t ask me why and how!) and selected an option that was slightly high priced but provided more cover. To be honest, that was the best last minute call I’ve ever made; if I hadn’t done that, we probably had had to come back without the car. So with the breakdown sorted, we set sail on the way to our destination, Normandy. We planned what we’d do each day, and had a busy schedule ahead but we were sure that we were going to have a great time. Only if we knew what lay ahead of us.

Here, I’d flashback to the week before we started our journey. I was on M25 on my way home and I suddenly felt the car lost all its power. As if it went into a limp mode. The car was only over a year old, so you don’t expect a major fault to develop. The breakdown mechanic couldn’t fix it, but he reset the warning light and asked to start and see if the traction is back. It worked. So I thought it was a freak incident and I must have done something to cause that. The dealer could not have a look in such a short notice, so we decided to carry on with the plans and get the car fixed later.

Coming back to 20th of June, we did the usual. On reaching Calais, a trip to Adinkerke to buy cheap tobacco and Speculoos, a quick trip to Carrefour Mivoix and late lunch at the McDonalds there. With all that done and a cranky terrible two, we headed for belle Normandie. Except that we were running a bit late and looked like we wouldn’t get to the campsite before 8:30 pm. It was a long drive but that never bothered us. Not until the things started to go wrong very quickly. We were approaching Boulogne-sur-mer on A16 where the road goes on an incline. It’s not steep by any means, but the car generally needs to work harder. Whilst on that section, the car lost power again! Second time within a week. I exactly knew what went wrong when the engine warning flashed on the dashboard. It made me panic a bit. A breakdown on a foreign country is a terrifying prospect, let alone that happening on the autoroute meant we’d have to pay highway authority the fees to be towed away from the autoroute. So I decided to carry on driving at 50mph until we reached the next exit. Thankfully it was a country road and I carried on driving for a while before we stopped on the verge. My satnav said it’s a place called Beuvrequin. I remember the place we stopped, with houses on the right and the other side of the road, had vast fields.

Beuvrequin, verge/footpath where we stopped


Beuvrequin, view on the other side of the road

After we calmed down our crying daughter, upset that the holiday might not go ahead, I called the breakdown agency. I reported the breakdown and was told that the wait time is about 45 mins. Being parked on the pavement by a country road was not the best of the places, especially getting stares from people who had to go on the grass. A few minutes later, I received a call from the French contact from the breakdown company, telling me that they cannot send assistance because during my application I said we’ll be going to Belgium and then France. So, tow away will have to come from Belgium, and they don’t to towing across borders. Infuriated and anxious, I called the UK number, and after explaining the situation, they said we should get assistance and they will arrange with the French colleagues. Another 15 min later, which is almost an hour since I was told that the assistance is 45 min away, I received another call from the French number saying they are sending breakdown van and it’ll be coming around 5:45 pm. By then, I doubted any garage will be open.

The breakdown truck arrived slightly earlier than we were told. As expected, the mechanic didn’t know a word of English. I thought that would be ideal to practice my French. I probably would have, if I knew all technical terms. I didn’t even know what brakes are called. Anyway, the guy picked the car on his truck and asked us to go in the truck to the garage. I think that was the highlight of the day and my daughter loved travelling in a truck. We went to a garage in Boulogne-sur-mer. He met another colleague who had a computer to connect to the engine management system. They decided that it’s beyond their knowledge and learning that the car was under warranty, they said the work can only be done in an Opel garage. By that time we gave up our hope to get the car fixed that day because it was already nearly 6 pm. The mechanic said he’ll take us to their garage to keep the car overnight and we can arrange the taxi pick-up from the garage. We were offered a replacement car or stay in a hotel and get the car looked at the next morning. I was confident that it’ll just be resetting the alarm and we’ll be able to drive on. So we chose the hotel and waited at the garage. The taxi came around 6:30 pm to take us to the hotel in Boulogne.

Hardy Maurice garage
Source: https://www.ville-stleonard.fr


Hotel ALexandra in Boulogne

The hotel was pleasant and it was located close to Boulogne city centre. We walked down to a square called Place Dalton and had a nice dinner, trying to forget the headache we’re about to have the following day. The following day we had nothing to do but wait for the updates from the breakdown company. So we were just cooped up in the room. About 9 am we received a call saying that the breakdown garage will take the car to the nearest Opel garage. I thought it would be done in minutes, so our hopes of having our holiday soared high again. But that state of euphoria didn’t last long as a follow up at 11 am confirmed that the car was still in the garage. The agent said she’ll call me back shortly. When she did, it was even worse news. Opel garage was fully booked and they wouldn’t be able to fix it before Wednesday or even Thursday. At that point, we thought we’d had enough and started thinking of cancelling the holiday and go back home. As a last ditch attempt, we demanded a replacement car. After waiting another 10 minutes for a callback, we were told that our only chance was if we left the hotel immediately because the car hire place they use will be shut from 12 pm. It was already getting towards 11:30 am. So we picked all our tonnes of luggage, waiting for the taxi. Then the taxi dropped us at the wrong place, which meant we had to drag all our luggage and a toddler across a busy junction without crossings. When we arrived at the Enterprise Cars office, there was only one employee, waiting for us. It took another half an hour to get sorted. But in the end, we had our car.

I wish our story could end here, but it wasn’t unfortunately. Our understanding of the breakdown cover was that we get the hire car until the time we are ready to return to Boulogne on our way back. On Wednesday afternoon, as we’re exploring the American war memorial in Colleville-sur-mer, I received a call from the breakdown company that our car was fixed and they want the hire car back. Shouting or swearing is normally my cup of tea, but if I lost my temper that day, I’d expect people would have sympathised with me. I kept my calm but said that they are expecting me to make a 600 km journey because they screwed up a breakdown repair. It also seemed like the day of our return, Saturday, is only for the Car buyers at the Opel garage and the repairs department is shut. I was told very sternly to go back on Friday to which I refused, agreeing to pay the difference for an additional day of car hire. Half an hour later, I received another call that the garage had been very understanding and made a very rare exception of opening the repair garage on Saturday.

With the good news that the car was fixed and that we can get on with rest of the holiday, we felt relaxed then and enjoyed the rest of the days. Except the fact that Normandy is where it rains most in France and it rained really bad the week we went there. Unlike previous caravan holidays, we opted for tent that time, and the floor was filled with water because of the leaks in the floor sheet. We spent most of our stay in the tents mopping the floor, wet feet, soaked trainers and a damp tent. Despite this little inconvenience, I felt the time in Normandy was much more enriching than in Paris. Just when we were about to enjoy the holiday, having lost nearly two days, it was over and it was time to come home.

We started with plenty of time in hand, thinking of collecting the car early so we could go to the cheap wine store in Calais. We got to the Enterprise Car place at about 12. But then we realised that they are shut in Saturdays and we needed to drop the keys at a hotel opposite the car hire place, past the big junction. Les Gens de Mer — the hotel looked quite nice as we browsed the lobby and menu while we waited for the taxi. The taxi arrived late, and we were on our way to the Opel garage near Outreau where our car was getting repaired. When we got there, the manager said everything was done and they are getting the car ready. It did surprise me a bit because the car was ready on Thursday. We waited nearly 45 minutes before we were given the keys. We were at the last minute rush again, trying to get cheap fuel from Carrefour and head for the ferry. That was the beginning of another nightmare journey.

Hotel Les Gens de Mer
Source: Agoda.com

As we headed back to Calais, I noticed that the tyre pressure warning sign came on. I was not too worried at the beginning, because sometimes if one tyre had less pressure than the others, the sign came on. But as we went closer to Calais, I started to get more and more worried as the pressure kept on dropping. When the other tyres read 38 psi, the fourth tyre was at 25 psi. There must have been a leak, I thought. But where would that have happened? The car has always been at the breakdown garage or at the Opel garage. Did they just find out and handed me a car with a leak? Surely they can’t be that unscrupulous! But everything signed that way.

So we went back to Carrefour, filled the tank and put some air in the faulty tyre thinking it might have some problem that’s going to fix itself. When we boarded the ferry, I left the car with 35 psi on the tyre and hoping that it should stay like that when we reached the UK. 90 minutes later when we came down to the deck, I couldn’t believe my eyes. The tyre was completely flat. And we had landed as well, so we didn’t have any time to change the tyre. It was a Saturday afternoon and most of the garages would have been shut by 4 pm.

Now I made a faux pas at that moment. I had the option to come off the ferry and get the tyre changed with the spare tyre. We could have then driven home because our spare tyre is a full spec one and there is no speed restriction. Silly me, I didn’t remember that at the moment of madness when I thought if I take too long changing the tyre, and something else is wrong, I might lose the last chance to get home that night. So I decided to drive on to the next open garage, which was Kwik-fit. As I drove on the alloy wheel, the sharp and annoying screeching deafened our ears despite the windows were up. I was worried that there will be damage to the wheel as well but it was a relief that there wasn’t.

Kwik-fit changed the tyre straight away and we also got another tyre which was getting towards the legal limit. After that, we hit the road, hoping to get some dinner at Bluewater or Lakeside, places that we used to visit often but missed a lot when we moved. After a filling dinner, with our daughter falling asleep in the car, we finally felt that after all this, the holiday is coming to an end. But there are more twist in the tale that one can imagine. Just because everything had to go wrong on that trip, as we were on M6 nearing Coventry, my daughter woke up and started crying. We didn’t want to stop, being so close at home, and as I tried to accelerate harder, BANG! The engine warning light came back on and the car won’t speed beyond 50 mph. The sting in the tail that was waiting for us before we reached home. So all that fuss at the Opel garage, did they do sod all apart from puncture the tyre? Nevertheless, my daughter’s incessant crying made me carry on rather than stop and ask for another breakdown. I just pushed the pedal down and used the downward slopes on the road to speed up and use the momentum to drive the car at a higher speed as the road became flat or went up. Without much difficulty, we reached home, bringing a close to the worst travel experiences we ever had.

Like many stories have an epilogue to the end, the tale of our misfortunes does not end there. I had to take many days off as I was unable to commute to work while getting the car fixed. Back then, I was doing a commute of 300 miles! During next few days, the car was repaired, and the fault reappeared almost immediately at times. In the end, it took a call to their grievance line to report the issue to get the technical team involved, who sorted the problem. One of those days when the car was broken down, I had to hire a car to go to a meeting in London. There, as I was trying to get on the Hammersmith bridge, I was caught at the box junction and was fined £70. Now the car belonging to the hire company, they received the fine notice first. By the time I received it, I couldn’t appeal online, so I had to send it over email. I then got the email address wrong and was then facing a court action since the first notice was received much earlier and the normal 2 weeks response window had gone. This dragged on until November. So nearly 5 months after that week in June, we put an end to the dreadful journey, but before that end, I had to pay out the final amount which had since doubled.

So, there we are, our story ends here. Terrible experience to sum it up. And I believe we won’t forget it very soon. Yet, the good memories will last longer. Visit to Utah, Omaha and Juno beaches, our daughter’s excited walk in the sand, the American war memorial and its deafening silence at Colleville-Sur-mer, the Bayeux tapestry, Caen, beautiful village of Beauvron-en-auge, riviera of the north Deauville and Trouville-Sur-mer, surreal grace of Lisieux abbey, sunrise over the trees at our site in the middle of nowhere at Château Le Brévedent, the quaint villages Le Pin and Blangy-le-château near our campsite, the bridge at Le Havre — the memories are countless and one day, if not already, they will outweigh the dreadful experience about the journey.

Just as I finished this with a positive spin, I remembered to add one last note about our holiday from hell. The year this happened was 2016, and I guess we all know what happened that year between 20th and 25th June. Yes, Brexit. That happened while we were on this holiday as well. Before we left, we were all confident that it was just a paper exercise to finish off UKIP, and in fact felt smug to see the smiles disappear from the leavers’ faces. On 24th when the results came out, we were going to Trouville-sur-mer. The entire day was spent in disbelief, then frustration and then anger, as all the lies started to surface. Brexit was the pinnacle of the catastrophes that week and I believe it was symbolised by everything that went wrong with the car. It was a nightmare, getting a simple thing done took forever, service on both sides of the border was equally appalling, and above all, since it happened, things were never the same. You live in fear that things will go wrong again, and so it did. The car proved my premonitions, and Brexit will go the same way. I think there will be a time in future where all good and terrible memories will fade away, and we will remember the journey just as our own Brexit disaster. I think that should say it all.
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Bengali culture, calcutta, France, religion, Travel

Bong Connection 2.0 : Rediscovering Calcutta in Lisieux

As the summer time approached, we were engaged in another holiday search; the destination was as usual France, so it wasn’t too far to drive, and we could enjoy the freedom of going anywhere we wanted, and anytime. We booked a camping site in a small village in Normandy called Le Brévedent. Normandy evokes a lot of familiarities, the most significant of them is, of course, the D-day landing sites. So our choice was made, that D-day beaches will definitely be the place not to miss. The first item sorted on the list, we were gazing through TripAdvisor and Visit Normandy websites to look for other attractions. There were many places to choose from — historic Caen and its patrimony related to William the conqueror, the famous Bayeux tapestry and other museums, the Riviera of Normandy Deauville-Trouville and Honfleur, picturesque small villages in Pays d’Auge region. Amongst all these difficult choices, almost by chance, I came across Basilique St. Thérèse de Lisieux, one of the most important places in France for Catholic pilgrimage. Our penchant for religious architecture made me tentatively put it on our list, although apart from looking at an elegant edifice almost reminiscent of Basilique de sacré-cœur in Montmartre, I had no idea about the place, its significance in Catholicism or what I’ll soon be discovering — an arcane connection between a remote catholic monastery in rural Normandy and me!

Spending most of my youth in Calcutta, the city is in my veins. A place I still call home, the city I’d not replace with any other place. In a world rapidly transforming at a lightning speed, it still didn’t bother me how Calcutta dug its heels in and held on to the character it portrayed for over last 300 years. The rickety facades along the bylanes of north Calcutta leading to an ocherous swathe we call Ganga, the fish markets of Gariahat where you desperately want to look close at the fish but don’t want the mud splatter on your new sandals, the central Calcutta with its confluence of nationalities and religions living in harmony and camaraderie, and to the swank South City shopping mall or affluent Alipore mansions — Calcutta has a vibe about it that I seldom found anywhere else. A perfect example of adopting a multilingual and multicultural personality without banishing its own inherent cultural roots and character, Calcutta is indeed a fatal attraction. And that attraction, or familiarity, is not just limited to India, but across the world. Apart from being known as the pearl of the British Empire in its heydays, and the perceived cultural capital of India, there is one person whose reputation has made the City of joy known to people from far corners of the world, not just amongst the intellectual circles, where most of the renowned Calcuttans belonged. That person is Mother Teresa, who’d soon be canonised as the Saint of the gutters. I don’t believe she cured the unknown Brazilian man long after her death, but she had nevertheless made miracles happen while standing by the poor and distressed population of Calcutta, who we never thought of while pontificating about the cultural richesse of our beloved city. Shadow under the lamp was a term we often used during our school years; Mother Teresa was the light to that darkness in a city where, despite old money from the Raj reigned, there were more and more people in poverty and destitution, especially during the war and after the partition.

It was during searching for her early life that I came across the name of Lisieux. Agnes wanted to be named after St. Thérèse de Lisieux, the patron saint of the missionaries; and through her life she followed the footsteps of Thérèse, devoting her life to the service of thousands, and inspire millions. So as the opportunity came to visit Lisieux drew closer, it was no longer a tourist destination – marvelling at the awe-inspiring architecture of Basilique St. Thérèse de Lisieux, but it was a pilgrimage for me as well, of a different kind, of witnessing the place where the journey began for Thérèse, and therefore for Teresa, one of the greatest ambassadors of the city I always call home.

The surprise didn’t end there. Lisieux highlighted another connection to Calcutta that I never thought existed. Carmel school for girls in Jadavpur is one of many high echelon missionary schools in Calcutta that boasts of excellent educational standards and alumnae. My friends, ex-colleagues, relatives — I knew many Carmelites. In fact, my own cousin is a teacher there, the familiarity is that close. I often heard their alumnae be referred as Carmelites but the term never made me delve further into its origin. Not until I learned that Thérèse joined the Carmelite order in Lisieux, a thirteenth-century order originated from monasteries in Mount Carmel near Haifa. Voilà! It was the Carmelite missionaries who were inspired by the success of the order in Lisieux, and travelled the world and opened new convents. Carmel in Calcutta is one of them. Now, there were two reasons that Lisieux became a must see place, as a place that popularised the Carmel convents across the world, and above all, pay visit to the Basilique St. Thérèse de Lisieux and the shrine of Thérèse, and understand who this young lady was, who made a profound inspiration on young Agnes, beckoning her to come to Bengal. I almost felt a sense of belonging to Lisieux without even being there, through the connections it has with Calcutta.

Our travel to Normandy was a nightmare involving a broken down car, rain, lost day stranded in a hotel with the entire week in jeopardy…so on the second day, when we were told that the car won’t be looked at until another day, our decision was made. With a replacement car, when we crossed the Seine on the bridge of Normandy, our holiday had suddenly become a reality again! The closest resemblance I could think of is when you wait for a cricket match and it rains, the pitch and outfield were all wet and you keep hoping that the match doesn’t get cancelled and after a long wait the sun suddenly makes an appearance, and although curtailed, it’s all ready to go ahead again. We had to shorten out plans to fit all the things we wanted to see in three days rather than four, but Lisieux was only 16km away, and en route the nearest McDonald’s; hence, our plan to visit Lisieux didn’t change.

After our trip to the nearest shopping our first day in Le Brévedent, on our way back to the camping site that I first noticed the Basilica. It was getting dark and the sky was overcast as it only stopped raining a while ago, and I had no clue where we were. But just as I looked around our car, the silhouette suddenly jumped out into our view. In that dim background, on the hill on our left situated the structure I already felt familiar, yet it looked like a surreal dream. There are moments when you see something remarkable and wished you had a camera in hand, and all I had in my hand then was the steering wheel. Yet, that view will be stored in my mind for a long time, if not forever.

Basilique St Thérèse de Lisieux

Basilique St. Thérèse de Lisieux

Two days later, on our way back from historic Caen, we decided to come to Lisieux. The eerie silhouette finally gained its shape, a shape that was familiar yet the size and grandeur was out of proportions from what was seen on a TripAdvisor page. The off white neo-Byzantine edifice was awe-inspiring, just as were the breathtaking intricate designs at the interiors and the crypt. The description of the building stops here as this is not a travelogue, and the rest can be found in any travel guide. On the contrary, it was my attempt to connect the dots in my mind, with a young Albanian nun starting her life of sacrifice and charity, her becoming an inseparable part of the persona of Calcutta, and therefore my existence and identity, and me standing there in the suburbs of a quaint town in Calvados country looking at the shrine of Thérèse, where this all began about 125 years ago. And another set of dots following the footsteps of the Carmelite monks, which would throw me much further back in history, at least 900 years and up to the genesis of Abrahamic faiths thousands of years ago.

And there I was, teleported to the daily life of Thérèse in Alençon, to her life in the monastery in Lisieux…walking along the sections in the crypt detailing Thérèse’s life, it started to cast more light on the early life of Agnes, and a striking similarity between the aspirations of the two women, to serve the most deprived and forlorn strata of the population…

If I ever become a saint, I will surely be one of “darkness.”  I will continually be absent from Heaven–to light the light of those in darkness on earth.” – Blessed Teresa of Calcutta

“I love the night as much as the day…I want to spend my heaven in doing good on earth. Yes, if God answers my desires, my Heaven will be spent on earth until the end of the world.” – Saint Thérèse of Lisieux

That was the revelation for me. My circle was complete. It became evident that these two extraordinary women took the same trajectory of life, making small changes to people’s lives that led to phenomenal transformations. I felt like Robert Langdon standing in front of the inverted pyramid in Louvre. I was standing at the place that spiritually inspired Agnes to come to Calcutta, the city she gave all her life to, and in turn transfused the traits of her self into the character of Calcutta that I imbibed. My pilgrimage was complete — the answer to “why of all saints, Thérèse de Lisieux?” had been found, as was the answer for who the Carmelite missionaries were.

I think the natural curiosity would set me on the course for the Carmelites monks all the way to Mount Carmel in Israel. But let’s not go that far yet…let’s first wait for a discussion on Palestine!

Disclaimer:


I thought that this post would need a few disclaimers on my motivation for writing this, and here they are…
 
1. Is this religious post?
No, it is about nostalgia with me searching for the influences on Calcutta and its image outside West Bengal.
 
2. Does this make me feel more religious?
I’m as raving an atheist as I ever was. I have a hate-hate relationship with religion where I don’t know religion thinks of me but I’m all in to send it away to somewhere like Azkaban, banished forever from human contact.
 
3. Less religious then?
No, I never was religious to become any LESS religious.
 
4. Why then I still visit religious sites?
Because despite their religious origin, I see them as brilliant examples of architecture and craftsmanship, erected by ordinary men for the extraordinary greed and hunger for power for their rulers. The same applies to my interests in religious texts as well.
 
5. So, do I support Sainthood of Mother Teresa?
Yes and No. No, because her deed didn’t need a convoluted story to establish her miracles. She made miracles happen to the lives she transformed. Perhaps Vatican needs to reassess their policy what they treat as a miracle. Yes, because if she did this for her religion, she deserved the highest acclaim the church could proffer. And her contribution meant actually life changing transformations through care and humility, not phoney cures with lights passing through a photo or any such trash.

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#JeSuisParis, #ParisAttack, JeSuisParis, Paris, Terrorisme

Je suis Paris: Réflexions sur l’attaques terroristes du 13.11.15

J’ai une connexion spirituelle avec la France il y a longtemps. Comme j’ai grossi dans une ville nommée l’un des «Paris de l’Orient» pour sa richesse culturelle, pour être mieux avancé en pensées et pour avoir un joie de vivre, dès ce temps-là, j’ai ressenti un lien très fort avec Paris, et la France en générale. Pour moi, il y avait toujours Paris, la capitale culturelle du monde, l’acmé de maîtrise intellectuelle, la culmination de la liberté d’expression. Et il y avait la reste du monde, séparés entièrement de ma ville de rêve. Et encore, la France était toujours le pays de la liberté, égalité, fraternité qui a formé le premier république moderne après la révolution sanglante. Quand j’ai entendu «La Marseillaise» la première fois,  j’ai remarqué comment les mots sont complètement différent que les autres hymnes nationales. Il n’y avait pas aucun référence de dieu, ni prier, ni une explication comment magnifique son pays est. Au contraire, l’hymne parlait d’être armées jusqu’à ce que les champs sont remplis de sang de son ennemi. Première fois, ç’a semblait un peu violent, mais les mots aussi signifient la sacrifice française pendant la révolution. Sans ces sacrifices, la France comme nous la connaissons aujourd’hui n’aurait pas existé. Plusieurs siècles sont passés depuis «La Marseillaise» a été écrit, mais une phrase a tout à fait reflété comment l’attentats terroristes du 13 Novembre 2015 ont eu lieu — «Ils viennent jusque dans nos bras/ égorger nos fils, nos compagnes…». Les événements seront écrits comme un jour noir, pas seulement pour la France, mais pour l’humanité entière quand l’amour et la vie est bousculé par les mercenaires de mort.

C’est la deuxième fois quand Paris est frappé par les terroristes inconnus cette année, cachés derrière leur visages normale. Le visage de ces mercenaires n’étaient pas extraordinaire, ceux n’étaient pas marqués par symboles qui nous disent que leurs cœurs sont remplis de la haine. Au contraire, ces meurtriers peut-être semblaient tout banale, comme toi et moi, et c’est comment ils peuvent mélanger avec la foule avant qu’ils ont lancé leurs attaques. Précisément c’est une mission  presqu’impossible quand l’on ne sait pas l’ennemi, ce n’est pas une guerre où l’on peut regarder dans les yeux des soldats et savoir lequel côté ils appartiennent.  

Écritures sur une statue au près de place de la Concorde, mis pendant ma visite en Juin.  Paris outragée, paris brisé, Paris martyrisé, mais Paris Libéré

Écritures sur une statue au près de place de la Concorde, mis pendant ma visite en Juin.
Paris outragée, paris brisé, Paris martyrisé, mais Paris Libéré

Mais attends! On ne se bat plus les guerres comme ça. Nous appuyons un bouton et tuons centaines n’importe qu’ils étaient l’ennemi, les terroristes ou les citoyens innocents. Et aussi, c’est toujours le débat adopté par les fascistes…la gloire de se sacrifier protéger son pays. Ils glorifient la guerre, promeuvent la haine contre les autres humains. Après la cauchemar du vendredi soir, il y avait déjà une tendance de condamner les immigrés Syriens et aussi déclarer qu’islam est une religion barbare qui promeut violence contre les autres religions surtout chrétiens. Tel points de vue seulement aggravent la situation, laissent les sociétés divisées en isolant les minorités. Comme les terroristes, les fascistes aussi ont rien à offrir pour améliorer l’humanité et seulement nourrissent de peur des citoyens. La France est en deuil et la gouvernement a promis un réplique «impitoyable», mais on ne doit pas oublier d’être vigilant contre le politique de droite, pour que la haine ne puisse plus exacerbé. 

Quelques rubriques transmettant la haine contre Islam. Source: Facebook page officiel des groupes de fascistes

Quelques rubriques transmettant la haine contre Islam.
Source: Facebook page officiel des groupes de fascistes

Le terrorisme est une crise de notre temps-ci, mais c’est plutôt comme une maladie qui a fallu éradiquer. Il faut utiliser la pouvoir dans une situation d’urgence contre les meurtriers, pour protéger les citoyens contre les attaques et les pays doivent être plus coordonnées, plus unifié. Mais avec la pouvoir militaire, la tâche sera seulement demi-complet. La lutte le plus difficile sera d’effacer l’idée du terrorisme, son existence hors des cerveaux des son poursuivants. Il faut enseigner qu’il n’y a pas aucune gloire à achever tuer les autres humains, il n’y a pas aucune éternité leur attend après la mort. Ça sera seulement la honte, la mépris. 

La combat contre le terrorisme sera un affaire long, dur et grave. Mais il faut rester unifié toujours, et n’oublier jamais ceux qu’on a perdu. Quant à parler sur l’atrocité en Paris, nous devons aussi commémorer aux autres qui sont morts ou blessés aux autres coins de la terre — Liban, Irak, Kenya — n’importe où ces actes se sont passés, le sang saigné était toujours rouge. Aussi, les chiffres ne doivent pas nous dire comment réagir. N’importe si c’est un ou une centaine, la vie est hors prix, et donc la perte de vie à cause de ces actes de lâche faut être commémorés néanmoins. Mais aussi, nous devons former une société vraiment basée sur les trois principes — liberté, égalité et fraternité. Personne ne doit plus être jugé selon leur peau, langue, sexe ou religion. Que l’un est un être humain sera suffisant pour être traité avec respect, sans suspicion. Si nous pouvons intégrer tout le monde dans une société commune et leurs comprenons assez, il n’y aura pas aucune religion nous séparer ou faire se battre l’un contre l’autre. Le fait que nous sommes humains, et tout le monde sont pareils sera meilleur que n’importe quelle religion nous enseigne. 

Un pianiste inconnu joue sur piano Imagine de John Lennon devant le théâtre Bataclan (Source: YouTube)

Alors, qu’est-ce qu’on doit faire? D’abord c’est très important que nous n’oublions pas Beyrouth ou Baghdâd, quand on pense aux vies perdues. Mais Paris a nous déjà montré le chemin! Milliers des citoyens gardant vigiles, les bougies, une pianiste joue au piano devant le théâtre Bataclan — ces images envoient une message très fort aux terroristes qui essayaient de briser Paris. Paris était frappé mais répliqué dans une manière typiquement français — d’être courageux sans violence, et donc les bruit des fusillades seront submergé par la musique, la haine sera remplacé par l’amour. La violence contre la violence ne mettra pas fin à cette épidémie, et l’on doit être ferme sur garder la liberté et l’indépendance pour tous, pas seulement pour la majorité. La guerre contre le terrorisme commence maintenant avec toi et moi. Et donc, allons-y être en deuil pour Paris, pour Beyrouth, pour Baghdad…pour chaque perte de vie clamé par les mercenaires du mort. Et allons-y célébrer la vie, célébrer la joie de vivre et se moquer de l’absurdité de fanatisme religieux. Allons-y, disons «Je suis Charlie Hebdo, Je suis Paris, Je suis Beyrouth»…

La tour Eiffel pendant notre dernier visite.

La tour Eiffel pendant notre dernier visite.

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France, Language

France…rêve d’enfance

J’avais environ 10ans quand papa m’a loué un série de 4 livres de la bibliothèque chez son boulot. Quand j’ai eu commencé à lire ces livres, je n’avais jamais imaginé qu’ils vont tellement changer ma vie. Ceux livres ont été écrits en bengalie, par Narayan Gangopadhyay, un écrivain très connu pour son caractère immortel en la littérature bengali, de genre comédie, Tenida. Mais aussi, M. Gangopadhyay était un maître de la langue Française et partout dans ses écritures, n’importe pour les enfants ou les choses sérieuses, on y trouvera les mots ou références français. Quand-même j’ai ris aux éclats avec chaque nouvelle aventure de Tenida, c’était là où j’ai rencontré mes premières mots français de la grande Méphistophélès (parlé en bengalie comme Di la grandi mefistofilise), et monsieur venez avec moi. Et comme ça commencé un voyage qui m’a très enrichis pendant les années à venir, quelque chose dont je suis très passionné, d’apprendre la langue français.

Depuis cette moment-là et jusqu’à l’année où  j’ai fait mon Bac, j’ai appris plusieurs choses sur France…les villes les plus connues, la révolution française, la renaissance, des écritures de Victor Hugo, Alexandre Dumas. En plus, ma ville Calcutta est connue comme Paris de l’orient, pour sa histoire et son patrimoine culturel, avec la majorité des écrivains, artistes, réalisateurs indiens pendant les années 90s arrivant de Calcutta. Malgré tout ça, ma française n’était pas meilleur, et l’espoir d’apprendre la langue n’était plus un priorité, un raison d’être, surtout parce qu’il n’y avait pas ni d’opportunité ni d’argent pour apprendre une langue étrangère. Mais pendant ces années-là, je n’ai jamais complètement quitté l’envie d’apprendre français un beau jour, comme un espoir que vous ne jamais laissez partir.

Et donc quand je suis allés à l’uni, comme d’habitude j’étais inspiré par les pensées communiste et devenu un anarchiste. On est rencontré avec les idées de Camus et Sartre, de films du genre la nouvelle vague, de Godard et Truffaut. Encore, c’était presqu’impossible de trouver ces livres ou les CDs des films ceux jours-là. Quand j’ai commencé à travailler en 2000, pendant les 5 années prochaines, j’ai acheté quelques livres français pour première niveau, chez le magasin de l’alliance française de Calcutta, dans le fameux foire du livre de Calcutta. Enfin, en 2006 après avoir me convaincre la dernière fois, un samedi soir, je suis allé à l’alliance française et un vieux bâtiment m’a accroché, ou je serai poursuivre ma rêve d’enfance, en quittant les soirs de weekend avec mes chers amis bavarder sur des petits-riens, un passe-temps très connu ou méconnu pour les citoyens Calcuttan. 

C’était pendant les temps quand j’étais étudiant chez AFC, qu’un millier des fenêtres ont été ouvertes montant France et sa culture et la vie moderne dans le 21ème siècle, et l’envie d’en savoir plus a devenu plus vif. À part d’améliorer ma vocabulaire française en la classe, j’allais à la bibliothèque de AFC, et j’ai lu mes BDs très aimés- Tintin et Astérix en leurs langues natives. Je lisais aussi un magazine pour les enfants j’aime lire et un autre je bouquine destinée aux ados. Ces livres, n’importe que n’étant pas bien avancé, m’enrichi beaucoup comment j’utilisais les expressions quotidiennes et agrandir ma vocabulaire. Pour les filmes, J’ai trouvé un trésor enfin, que je cherchais depuis longtemps – le petit soldat de Godard. Inspiré de voir plus. J’ai aussi commencé à aller à Nandan, un ciné géré par la gouvernement, pour voir les filmes français gratuit en montant la carte d’identité de AFC. Touts ces efforts et sacrifices ont enfin bien payé quand j’ai gagné premier place dans toutes les examens géré par l’institut et le ministère d’éducation française par la gouvernement français. Les résultats m’a beaucoup plait mais je voulais plus apprendre et à mon avis je n’était pas plus avancé où je voulais être. 

En 2008 je suis arrivé à l’Angleterre poursuivre mon rêve de faire maîtrise en gestion, et accéder les matériaux français a devenu très facile soit YouTube, soit un copie de le monde, soit sur l’univers du torrent. J’ai découvert Audrey Tautou, un actrice très doué sans limite de notre temps, et Romain Duris. J’ai trouvé Camille et Lara Fabian et leurs voix addictives. C’était comme accéder la prochaine étage d’un événement  J’étais aussi membre d’un groupe francophone à université, et quand même on n’a pas beaucoup de temps pour un rendez vous, j’avais bien profité pendant nôtre rendez-vous avec les amis. 

Autant que dès que l’arrivé à l’Angleterre il y a sept ans, j’ai toujours voulu visiter France pour voir la paysage avec mes yeux-même, pas dans un photo d’un livre ou film, mais ce n’était pas possible pour plusieurs raisons. Je rêvais aller à Paris depuis longtemps, monter la Tour Eiffel, visiter la Louvre, faire la promenade sur l’avenue de champs élysées. Sans doute il y a beaucoup plus de France que seulement Paris, mais pour moi, qui a grossi dans un cité plus inspiré par Paris, ce serait comme compléter un cirque entière. 

En 2010 j’ai trouvé un USB pendant travailler en Londres à côté d’un rue, et malgré toutes les précautions de risquer la santé de mon ordinateur, je l’ai connecté pour accéder les contenus et trouvé, par chance, un film français bienvenue chez les Chti’s, sur la vie d’un emploi vivant en Nord pas de calais. Plusieurs mois et ans sont passés, et quand notre petite fille Sofia a reçu sa passeport mi-janvier, j’ai décidé qu’on va plutôt aller au pays que j’ai toujours regardé comme la pinacle d’égalité, de socialité et pensées créatives et intellectuelles. Et donc en février, précisément au jour de St Valentin, nous sommes abordés un bateau P&O Ferries vers Calais, et enfin vers 13h d’après-midi d’un jour bien ensoleillé j’ai mis mes pieds sur la plage de Calais, et je me suis souvenu Bienvenue chez…, que je suis enfin en la terre des Chti’s, un morceau de France que je seulement connais par un film, mais c’était un réalité, pas une image cache dans la mémoire. Malgré qu’on n’était pas très loin de Londres, j’en étais en esprit, car c’était la terre que je rêvais voir un jour, la terre de révolution, de Rousseau, d’Amélie Poulain, d’Alpes. C’est difficile d’écrire l’émotion mais j’étais très heureux là, comme si j’ai croisé les six degrés de séparation, un voyage tout à fait satisfaisant, assez longue mais bien récompensé et plein de richesse et bonheur. 

Il y à beaucoup d’espoir pour l’avenir, qu’un jour je vais recommencer apprendre France dans le niveau prochain où j’ai arrêté, que j’enseigne Sofia pour que français puisse sa deuxième langue, mais c’est un autre histoire à raconter…

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