A FOGGY HEATHROW. That means a flight delayed by an hour – a bearable delay, but a delay that made leaving home a little harder, as all I could think about was my bed as I sat sandwiched between prattling passengers in the departure lounge. It’s crazy, however – a journey of little under 400 miles from door to door shouldn’t take a day, but what with a delayed flight, and a long wait at Austerlitz station, I’d been travelling for nearly ten hours. I amused myself with the thought that a flight to Cancun takes almost as long.
Please don’t be disillusioned, however! I wasn’t annoyed or depressed to back in France, rather back at the foyer, a place that remained devoid of Christmas or New Year festivities or any solid WiFi connection that doesn’t require me to sit right next to the door. If I had actually forgotten it was 2015, I was reminded when I got back to the lycée on Monday. You know, I don’t think I’ve ever kissed so many people on the cheek as I did on that day in the name of New Year; it was a near-incessant stream of la bise that seemed to take the entire length of breaktime; far longer than usual at any rate. Not that it’s alien to me anymore. I’m so used to cheek-kissing and hand-shaking that I’ve learned to drink my coffee at breaktime with my left hand, so that my right is always suitably set for a salutation. It’s such a renowned part of French culture, but it’s not until you find yourself in a French staffroom that you realise that is really is a part of French culture. They do it all the time, so much so in fact that I wonder if it’s really worth it – you can barely enjoy lunch without having to put down your fork to kiss somebody and thank them for wishing you bon appétit, all to put it down again two minutes later to kiss someone else you’d seen only the day before. Nonetheless I don’t mind at all, it’s interesting to watch and nice to work somewhere where the colleagues kiss you rather than throw apathetic glances over a microwaved quiche.
Speaking of quiche (loosely), January means one thing to the French people: the tradition-bound galette des rois. Essentially it’s a closed sweet puff pastry tart filled with frangipane, although apple, raspberry and chocolate variations tempt. One of my colleagues at the collège, Cécile, invited some of the staff and their families (I came alone, obviously) to her house to join in the galette-gobbling, something I was keen to experience. Well, I was keen. As Debrett’s will also tell you, it’s very bad form to go to someone’s house for food without bringing something along, not least in France. So, after a trip to a wine merchant, I took the bus to a village across the river and much to my surprise, horror, disbelief – whatever you want to call it – somehow managed to drop the bag getting off the bus. You can imagine my annoyance. Note to self: just bring chocolate next time because it doesn’t smash and make a loud noise if you drop it.
Anyway, there were nineteen of us in total, and after Cécile’s daughter and boyfriend arrived and the token cheek-kissing was over with, the youngest members of the party (fortunately not me) went under the table to randomly call out everyone’s names to decide who is served the first slice. And then, after a toast, people eat in hope of finding la fève (this was once upon a time a bean, but can now be anything from a two cents coin to a postage stamp), to be crowned ‘The King’ or ‘Queen’ with a cardboard crown. I didn’t find any bean. Or coin. Or stamp. It’s fine, though, I’ll let them have their paper crowns because we have real ones where I’m from.
As happy as the New Year may have been, all happiness was overshadowed by Wednesday 7th January, a date that will now forever be etched into the memory of France. As I read online what was happening at the offices of Charlie Hebdo that afternoon, it was difficult to comprehend that this was happening in France. Naively, I might say, I thought France was sort of immune from terrorist attacks – not least those on innocent cartoonists at one of the country’s most well-known magazines. It verged on the unthinkable.
That evening we went to the cinema, as planned, and passed Place du Martroi, the city’s main square. It was beginning to swell with mourners, encircling the statue of Joan of Arc with tealights and past editions of the magazine, undisturbed by the specks of rain that had begun to fall. Thursday saw me back at the collège, the first day after the attacks, and the mood was palpably sombre. ‘Bonne année,’ I said to one colleague, who asked me if indeed it was a ‘happy’ new year. Another was quietly crying. One printed out ‘JE SUIS CHARLIE’ stickers to embellish our pigeonholes and the majority were flicking through their phones keeping up to date with what was unfurling in the city just an hour away. The school gathered in the hall for a minute’s silence at midday, where one of the history teachers roused us all about how the values held by the French nation had been tarnished. It was then that I realised how this was not just about the death of innocent people by a band of barbarians, but an intense attack on la liberté d’expression – something the French apparently hold as one of the most important pillars of their identity. But what stirred me the most was the reaction around the world. This includes the international surge of #JeSuisCharlie and the candlelit vigils and half-mast flags back home in the UK. It was as though the whole world was French for a week. There’s no denying the brutality of these attacks, but the freedom of expression is something people all value, it has emerged, and it could have equally happened in the UK, in Germany, in Spain – and there’s nothing to say it won’t – which I think has made these attacks so especially significant.
Without sounding morbid, I am strangely proud to have been in France in this time of mourning. I am glad to have witnessed a little part of their long history. I’m glad to have seen the tenderness of the French people, and how important their country and their morals are to them. I’m glad to have seen something I would perhaps never have seen if I’d enjoyed seven months of croissants and cheap wine.