I am suffering from acute moving angst. I'm supposed to start my new job in the UK in ten days, and as of now I maybe have an apartment (they're having trouble getting a reference from my French landlord - well duh), I maybe have a moving company, I have an idea of when I want to fly out, but I am very worried that my work visa won't be ready in time. The visa folks have my passport, too, so no chance that I could go to UK, set up house and come back to France to pick it up. Nope. Sorry.
I'm also dreading going back to the visa processing centre to pick it up, since it's in a scummy suburban neighbourhood and I felt really uncomfortable going there before and taking abuse from the men who hang around the bus station. And this, dear readers, is one of my two major frustrations of France in the summer: creepy men. (I promise I will deal with the summery joys of Paris in a later post. Right now I'm cranky).
Creepy men were one of the reasons I was so unhappy when I first moved here. It's a seasonal issue: once the clocks change in October I can go about my business unharassed. But in the summer months I get catcalls, nasty comments, and vulgar gestures nearly every time I leave the house. It's humiliating and it makes me angry, and it touches on a much broader, very sensitive issue. Most of these men are not 'francais de souche,' or French in ethnic origin: they, or their parents or grandparents, are from the former French colonies in North Africa. As a colonial historian I understand all too well the issues facing this community: the way they fueled the economic growth of post-war France, but feel they reaped none of the benefits; the discrimination they face in hiring; the traumatic memories of the Algerian war; the way suburbs were poorly constructed and badly maintained, leading to ghettoisation. I'm also horrified by the language and arguments of the anti-immigration extreme right in France.
A few years ago French law was clarified to state that the 1905 law on secularisation (laicite) means that religious symbols should be banned in public institutions, like schools. This means, for example, that a teacher should not be wearing a crucifix. But the main reason it was controversial was that it also means that women and girls cannot wear the hijab, or Muslim veil.
Before moving to France I felt quite uncomfortable with this law. I felt that it was a violation of religious freedom, an unwarranted (racist?) attack on the Muslim community, a knee-jerk reaction to 9/11, and an infantilizing and neocolonial move: you, Muslim women, are oppressed and do not know it - you need our help to progress. We know what's best for you.
Living in a Parisian suburb has changed my feelings about this law, in ways that I'm not fully at ease with. Last summer I saw one of the nasty creeps who had made a vulgar comment in the morning, strolling around with his veiled wife later in the afternoon. I'll never truly understand the complex reasons why some women choose to wear a hijab, but I knew there was a problem when my first instinct in responding to the harassment was to change the way I dress. Maybe I was showing too much skin - maybe I was provocative? Ridiculous, MCM replied. It's summer. You should be able to show your arms without being harassed. We debated whether these men were trying to embarrass or intimidate me into covering up - acting as morality police - or whether they were getting off on Western women while expecting their own to cover up. Either way, it sickens me.
I feel extremely uncomfortable with some of the conclusions you could draw from this. But I do believe strongly in gender equality, and I've come to the conclusion that you don't have equality when women are expected to cover all their skin and face harassment when they don't. What I still don't know is how to deal with the issue when I'm faced with it on the street.
The other serious frustration in summertime in Paris is much more straightforward. Mosquitoes, biting, buzzing and waking me up in the night. Honestly, French people: screens! In the windows! How can you not have screens? Dr Mmm, who is visiting Paris, commiserates with me - she also has that mosquito delicacy, pale Irish skin, and gets enormous welts from the bites. It's awful and if anyone else tells me to just get a citronella candle, I'll lose it.
Summertime rant over. Thank you.
13 hours ago