Last week, we packed up most of the family, my giant puppy and 15 pieces of luggage and headed to France for the summer. Once at LAX, I noticed something that I rarely pay any attention to; but picked up on immediately since deciding to document a bit of the Africa-Europe connection for the blog: African faces make up a part of the truly French experience.
Here is a small snippet to help you understand better:
When we reached the Air France counter at LAX, (our 4 carts stacked high with luggage in tow), I was greeted with the huge smile of a man who says: “Bonjour Madame! Ou allez-vous avec ce petite famille et un chien si beau?” Now, to those who are not francophone or who haven’t lived in France that would have been a nice airline employee asking if he could help. But to me, who immediately recognized the accent and knew that generally speaking, that level of engagement with strangers is a no-no in French culture… I was secretly entering the France-Afrique connection a bit early. He asked me where I was from and I knew instinctively that he didn’t mean what part of the US. I answered Eritrea and he smiled even bigger. You see, it was his job to tell me what counter to check in at, period. And had he been most (there are always exceptions!) employees of Air France- or any other large company for that matter- he’d have done just that. But, once he told me that I was his sister from the East, I understood. From that point on, my family and I got a little extra kindness. He even went to get tissues to literally wipe the drool from my puppy so that he “didn’t walk around embarrassing himself in front of the other dogs”. I felt at home. Standing in that huge airport surrounded by hundreds of people passing this way and that… I was at home.
This kind North African was so gracious to my family and my giant puppy that you would have thought he’d invited us into his home for tea. He petted the dog each time he passed by, made faces at our youngest daughter and gave our eldest a speech about finishing her studies before she even started to think about boys. He was more like an uncle than a man working for an airline who just happened to be on duty when the doors to Terminal 2 opened.
Many people imagine France as a land of white Europeans who walk around the streets of Paris looking chic and smoking cigarettes. Yes, that is a part of France. But, like all things, France is multidimensional, layered and complex. And this kind man from North Africa is a part of the France I know and love so much. He is part of the African face of Europe. Not the young thug who acts like an idiot on the to the train or metro, not the terrorist who goes off to Pakistan from London to join al Qaeda, not the man who forces his wife to wear a veil… but a smiling happy and kind man who calls France home and said to my husband as we walked away after thanking him for being the one who began our journey to France with such incredible kindness: “C’est normal après tout… entre Gaulois”.
This experience marked the beginning of my quest for Africa in Europe… and it happened while still on American soil.
I’ll be blogging more of my adventures; so keep in touch!
 Translation: “Where are you taking your little family and such a beautiful dog?”
 An interesting reference to the special relationship between French natives; which he clearly felt despite his African origins. He clearly felt completely tied to French culture, not just citizenship.