July 15, 2010: La France toujours

By: Caroline Fish

I woke up from a dream to my 6:45am alarm, and I went to Cergy, an hour on a suburban train from Paris, a town called a banlieue but in fact locked in beside a river and fields, more its own city than a part of Paris.

I found my way to a boulangerie for a morning pain aux raisins than to a McDonald’s for a coffee (only place open at that hour for coffee). The coffee came with a dainty chocolate bon bon on the side, I laughed– only a French McDonald’s would give you chocolate with your coffee. I gauged my coffee-drinking, and on time I was off to my interview with an NGO. Ten minutes early, I found myself in la place where the website said the address was. A simple pharmacy and a Maison de Quartier were all that sat on the empty square with the apartment buildings, and I was lost.

I stepped into the Maison de Quartier and waited for the group behind the front desk to finish chatting, laughing together, asked them where I might find the association. The woman immediately said I wasn’t in the right neighborhood at all, directed me to another address, which I had no idea how to find, then she said, wait, I’ll call them. She took me into a back office, made the phone call, I have a young girl here who has an appointment with your colleague; she got specific directions, gave them my phone number, handed me a post-it with their coordonnées and told me how to find the bus. It felt natural, like she wasn’t doing me a favor but doing what human beings do for each other.

On my way out, a young man, maybe my age, said he’d show me there, walked me through a shortcut under the building, genuinely interested in my project, and left me at the bus stop with an amiable, “Salut!” and I said a grateful “Bonne Journée!” with a deep hope karma repays these people big time for their kindness.

Minutes later, the woman at the association was calling me to make sure I was well and would be ok finding the place. When I found myself on the road in front of the alleged building where it was housed, I was calling her back saying I couldn’t find it, and she was leaning out the window waving, calling, “Appuyez le huit!” for the doorbell, “Troisième étage!” I got there smiling.

The director’s train was late arriving, so her colleague put on a DVD about forced marriages and brought me a glass of water. Are you sure you don’t want tea? Coffee? The film ended in suicide, and I know that’s the reality all too often when the twelve-thirteen-fourteen-year-old girls are being married by force, raped, and trapped into worlds too difficult for them to articulate.

When the director arrived, we talked for hours about forced marriages and the work she does, the women and girls she helps, the hope she has. I found out why I got so lost this morning. Our address is confidential, she said. If the families find out where we are, they show up here with a knife. You never know. The address on the website was a trick. Well, I am glad I was so fooled if it means it keeps their organization and those women safe. The danger and courage it takes to run an organization saving girls and women from violence is unbelievable sometimes. And this is France. Imagine trying to run a girl’s school in Pakistan or a woman’s shelter in Congo.

Afterward, the director and I got Greek food and tutoyer‘d; she gave me a few books and movies and said, “See you again soon!” when we parted, like it was a certainty we would and it was only a matter of time before we’d be back eating gyros in that corner restaurant in Cerges again.

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