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Emile M Tubiana

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After immigrating to Paris

Childhood Memories II


          At school our teacher didn’t have the answer to our questions.   Words like "sin", "forbidden", "prohibited", seemed strange to us, these words, were deflected by answers suggesting something like "not allowed".  No explanations were forthcoming for this vocabulary; the meaning was left to guesswork.


            One day when I was five years old, "Sin" came to me by chance while playing with the little girl next door, when on the spur of the moment, we stripped off our clothes.  We didn't know what the meaning of "good" and "evil" was for our parents.  Discovered and scolded by my mother for being naked, this was my first realization of sin.  As she told us, "it is a sin to be naked." After this experience we played secretly, away from the sight of the grown-ups.  In that sense we became good children, since everything we did surreptitiously was unnoticed, provided we were not detected.  And if by chance we would catch a glimpse of grown‑ups naked, we had to pretend we had not seen them.  Our parents and teachers were our best examples.  What was allowed for them was automatically allowed for us. 


            Their rules were difficult to understand; nevertheless we understood them from our own angle.  Our teachers followed them too, when they kissed in corners and in the school garden.  If we caught them, we turned away, in order not to see what was forbidden.  When we'll be grown‑ups, we'll follow these rules and perhaps we'll create new ones, I thought.  Any rule we would probably adopt would be right, since one must first know the limits of the meaning of "good" and "evil" as to find the right measure.  Good is subjective, acceptable to some, not to others, ‑ similarly evil. 


            Today, space ships go to the moon and tomorrow they will explore another planet.  But a fact remains:  we’ll discover the Moon or Mars without having discovered our own heart.  Children do not need boats or spaceships to explore their world, for theirs is not so remote.  Each of us can explore their world but to do so, we must forget we are adults.  It is not easy to become a child again but it is the only way to enter an unsullied world and it is easier than we believe.  After all, there is no need for a passport, money, education or baggage.  It is so simple:  just think without malice or intrigue.  We must free ourselves from all the problems which have overburdened us for so long.  We must be true to ourselves and recognize our own value as in the children’s world the roles are distributed without concern for hierarchy.  All that matters is to be part of the game.




            That evening I went to Roland's. There was a crowd. To our pleasant surprise, all our classmates living in Paris had been invited. They were all happy and welcomed each new comer with exuberant joy.  I was overwhelmed by the feeling which bound us intimately and of which we were all aware.  At first I was embarrassed as I could not put a name on each face of my old friends.  Victor who was the last to leave Tunisia was able to recognize everyone without hesitation. He introduced each one of them to me, saying: "Guess!  Who is this! Do you remember Mr. Teboul, the grocer? And his son Jacques?  Do you remember them?  Well, that's him!"  This scene, repeated itself many times.  We would then hug each other like brothers who haven't seen each other for years.


            After he greeted all the present friends, Roland came over to me leading a friend by the hand saying:

            "Here is one of the best of our childhood friends." I must confess that I did not recognize this young man.  But Roland announced:

            "Our friend Vincent!"  I jumped and kissed him.  His face had changed and he had grown taller, his physique was imposing.  The only thing unchanged was the color of his eyes.  When I hugged him, there was no reciprocal emotion and I had the feeling that I had embraced a stranger.  Nevertheless, he seemed moved and we rejoiced to see each other again.  Our talk went on until very late at night.   Before leaving, we had made arrangements to meet the following morning.


            Early the next day, as I came out of my apartment, I crossed rue des Abbesses where on each side of the street merchants had their fruit and vegetable stands on the sidewalks and drew scores of shoppers who seemed to congregate in front of the booths, blocking the way of other passers‑by.  The drivers sounded their horns profusely.  All this noise and bustle contributed to create the customary animation of populated neighborhoods.  It was already ten o'clock. 


            I tried to hurry by worming my way through the crowd.  I managed to edge myself into "La Tasse", a cafe at the corner on the rue Coulaincourt.  Vincent was not there yet.  He showed up later dressed in an old double breasted‑coat as I was ordering a glass of pomegranate milk shake (lait grenadine) 

            "I had a rough time finding my way around in the Metro (subway)" he said.

            "You should have come on a horse" I replied.

            "That's all I needed, with such traffic!"

            "After just a few days in Paris you had the guts to come by Metro (Subway).  Congratulations!  I remember how difficult it was for me, it took me a long time to understand how the Metro functioned; and frankly during my first days I avoided going out alone."


            Vincent, who appeared embarrassed to arrive late, listened to me carefully and seemed reassured.  He said,

            "Have you been waiting for me a long while?" 

            "No!" I answered.” Just a few minutes".  He then relaxed and we started to talk about the previous evening, then he became nervous and said:

            "I have problems with my Italian passport.  And what is so strange is that I can't even speak Italian.  In fact I feel more French than Italian.  Yesterday I went to the Police Headquarters and after the usual long wait, the clerk asked for my passport and demanded my reasons for coming to France saying:

            "We got enough French 'pieds noirs' (French North Africans), lo and behold! now there are Italian pieds noirs arriving! that's too much"  To excuse myself I told him I could not speak Italian and that at school we learned French, to which he replied:

            "If we had to accept all those who learned French, we will not have any space left in France".  This led me to say:

            "France is big enough and it is good for a country to be well populated."  My answer didn't seem to satisfy him he; dismissed me by saying:

            "Come back tomorrow."

Vincent related to me his first encounter with the immigration official. He was rather in a discouraged mood.  Then he asked me:

            "What does it mean `pied noirs'?"

            "They are the Bicots. It is a derogatory expression for the underprivileged in our society.  In Tunisia we were known as Europeans, here we are ‘pied noirs’ or ‘bicots’ if you prefer.  Don't worry over such a trivial thing.  All societies need a scapegoat.  Sometimes they are Jews, in the coal mines they are the Polish.  In America they are the ‘Afro-Americans’ to quote Americans who want to refer to Blacks; in Germany they are the ‘Auslander’ (foreigners), in Israel the ‘Frenks’ or ‘Ashkenazis’, in Arabic countries according to the situation they are called ‘Copts’, ‘Sunnites’, or ‘Shiites’, in Switzerland they are the ‘Zozets’ and somewhere else the ‘chleux’.  You've got to get used to it, my dear friend."

            "Yes, but at home it was..."

            "It was, what?"

            "Well!  We got along well..."

            "Of course!  Because we knew everyone.  And don't forget we were born in the same city.  Moreover, we were all immigrants, even the Arabs!  You'll see, once you are settled, the area will become familiar to you and neighbors will know you, you and your fellow ‘pied noirs’.  One must admit that Paris has its own phobias, even French people from the provinces are not really welcome here, and they are called ‘peasants’."

Somewhat reassured, Vincent asked me:

            "And, what about my passport?  In fact it is the first time I had a passport, in Tunisia we did not need one."

            "Yes, it's true , but we had other needs.  For example we could not go from one place to another without a carriage.  Well, let's talk about something else.  What would you like to order?  A coffee and a croissant?  I can't afford `beignets' or Tunisian couscous, for that we must go to Belleville.”

            "A coffee and a croissant will do."

Vincent seemed to me to be like an angel who came straight from heaven.  He tried to appear calm and confident but his blue eyes betrayed him.  Although he looked innocent, I could see that he was absorbed with fear and anxiety.  He looked at everything and everyone with curiosity as a baby looks wonderingly at the world around him.  I tried to talk about the beauty of Europe, and France in particular, but I don't know how the talk went always back to Tunisia and to our childhood.


            He was still living in the past and to please him I played his game.

            "Vincent, do you remember our teacher?  And do you remember how one day we stayed away from school because of...."  He completed the sentence "....of the fable of the ploughman and his children."

            "Do you see the application of the moral of this fable in today's world?  Well, one can express it in these words:  do not sell the legacy that your parents left you."

            "Yes, but what's the good of all this when all our possessions have been confiscated without our being able to protest?"

            "You are such a materialist!  Remember what our parents gave us morally; it is a legacy which cannot be taken away from us.  And that's important.  We possess our own treasures of unaccountable worth; for example, you, Vincent, are excellent in literature."

            "So what!"

            "Well you can write, express yourself."

            "Yes, and then...."

            "Well, you could write a book".

            "On what?"

            "Well, Vincent, on anything, why not on Tunisia, or our childhood for example."

            "Even if I lack imagination?"

            "You don't need imagination.  All you have to do is simply write the truth on our childhood or on the war; write, write, simply write, I beg you."


            Vincent lit a cigarette carefully and said: 

            "Our childhood or the war!  Who the hell could be interested in that?"

            "Are you kidding?  I, for example, and all my friends and fellow countrymen would love it.  If you want, I'll help you; I will try to recall incidents we experienced together and refresh your memory.  All you will have to do will be to let your pen guide you."

            "Well, that sounds wonderful!  And what a way to relive our childhood!" 

            "You see!  And you'll be forced to talk about Tunisia although you are miles away.  Don't you understand that the place where one is becomes irrelevant and of little importance."

            "It's true ! But you will have to devote much of your time to this undertaking."

            "Are you trying to tell me that you do not want my company?"  At these words Vincent protested strongly. 

            "Of course not, I would love to have your assistance and that would help me to detach myself from this European society."

            "Don't fool yourself, you won't escape the society; wherever you'll be, society will also be."  I noticed that this realization scared him, so I continued to encourage him further.

            "You will need society to appreciate your talent and to make you known to the world."

After a little pause, he asked yet another question about his passport. 

            "What should I do with my Italian passport?  What's the connection with our serious discussion?"

            "Forget about your passport for a moment, you don't need to worry about it.  You'll see, you will begin to feel that you are in Tunisia!"

He smiled, and it was obvious he was beginning to like his future role. 


            The church clock struck noon as a group of teenagers walked into the cafe to have lunch.  Vincent watched them, saying,

            "These teenagers don't have our problems.  They grew up in the same city where they were born, just like us before we left Tunisia.  But now we are rootless, overwhelmed with passport stories and Arab stories as if it were our mistake to have been born in Tunisia, and to top it all I from Italian parents and you from Jewish ones."

            "Put these problems aside, they are not too serious.  What should the poor Blacks say because of their skin coloring?  They think as we do, the only difference is that their parents were black.  Don't you see that they have a more difficult life among

Whites than us as immigrants?  What does one do to help them?  Nothing, strictly nothing.  My dear Vincent, feel content with your life.  This last war has disrupted the whole world.  Entire populations have been displaced.  The world is spinning faster and faster.  Soon we'll see Americans in Russia, Russians in America, Chinese in Europe.  A strange mixture will be created, a second Babylon.  Villages will be transformed into huge cities while the ancient cities will be deserted.  And we call that progress!  Rights for men were first created, now rights for women are a fact, soon we'll talk about rights for animals too.  And then we'll be faced with a quantity of rights.  One day we may even define the meaning of the word `duty' for those three categories.  Don't worry anyway, everything will be computerized.  Each of us will have a number, we'll be like robots."

            "But it will be a catastrophe!  What will we do with our feelings?  Will it be the end of mankind?"

            "Don't exaggerate; we haven't reached that point yet.  You and I must start doing something about it in order perhaps to change the course of progress.  It is not too late, but it is not too early either.  Let's not waste any time.  If only developing countries knew the price of progress!  Listen, Vincent, it's getting late and I think it's time to go home.  We'll see each other again towards the end of the week."


            It was one Sunday in May, the sky was blue.  Vincent and I had gone for a long walk along the Seine, somewhat north of Conflans‑Saint Honorine.  Barges went up and down the river visually merging into the water.  Vincent was ecstatic saying

            "Nature is so beautiful, what tranquility.  It's almost more beautiful than Tunisia."

            "Come on, Vincent, every country, every nation has its beauty, the problem is how to discover it."


            Children walked along the edge of the water which was ruffled with the passing of the barges.  A fisherman with his rod waited patiently.  But soon his line was being pulled; an unfortunate fish tried desperately to free itself from the hook, its struggle for life was in vain.  Although the fisherman seemed disappointed by the size of the fish, he was suddenly overcome by a feeling of pity comparable to that of a king granting a pardon to a convict sentenced to death.

            "Poor little fish, you are too young to die", said the fisherman.  And with an expansive gesture he threw it back in its own element.


            The vignette was over and Vincent who had followed it closely said angrily:  "This man has no heart!  He has committed a crime by hurting this poor fish and throwing it back into the water without wondering what will become of it.  It's unforgivable, one should......"

            "What do you want to do?  There is no law against that type of crime if there is a crime."

            "What you are saying is absurd" answered Vincent over sensitively.

            "My dear Vincent, it would be asking too much from a fisherman to forbid him to act in this way, for this is his hobby.  And if one had to create new laws they would deal with issues more important and more urgent.  One should....."



            A cool northern wind bent the young blades of grass.  The fisherman was getting impatient; the wind was in his way but at the same time it saved the life of many fish allured by the bait.  He cast his line again and again without luck.  Vincent was thrilled by the bad luck of the fisherman.


            "Thank God there are still natural forces which protect the well being of creatures."

            "You see," I added, "it's not always necessary for men to create laws.  Mother Nature manages to protect us fortunately.  She does not take into consideration our calculations.  However, as soon as Man finds himself away from society, he feels entitled to do everything, but in many cases the forces of Nature put an end to harmful deeds."


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Reviewed by Georg Mateos 11/12/2007
As childs we had rules to be broken, as adults we make rules to be broken by our children and life will go on puting more link in the chain.
But...the romanticism are lost, everything is measured in dollars or euros, a pied-noir isn't it if he possesses great wealth, a bigot isn't a bigot if all the people around him concurs.
Great story!!!

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