Soaking up the quiet in my apartment, broken only by music–not Christmas music at all, Les Cowboys Fringants. A Christmas present for Québécois me, who is going to have to take a vacation for a week or two while Mom is here. No French (unless absolutely necessary), no Cowboys, no poutine, no Georges Brassens. This skin that I’ve slipped into so easily, that makes me feel smart and strong, independent and separate, I’m going to have to take it off and hang it up.
There’s nothing wrong with being American (or being American Me) but it feels like going back in time; American Me feels like six-years-ago me, the me of the skating rink and of high school friends who are wonderful people but have a totally different way of looking at things and are consequently–with one exception–still where they were six years ago. Perhaps I’m wrong or judgmental, but I feel like I’ve lived more, much more. I feel like those friends– and American Me herself– belong to a parallel universe. American Me is also a timid little thing, wary of doing anything inadvertent and inept that would justify my parents’ treatment of me– by which I mean, not trusting me with anything more complicated than washing dishes by myself until I was already 18. Keeping me in a bubble-wrap care-bear land which I didn’t emerge from until well into university. Although I have friends that have been raised in the other extreme– forced to work a menial job at 14, left out in the cold to toughen them up, etc.– and I wouldn’t want to raise my kids that way either. There has to be a balance somewhere.
Change of music– Amadou et Mariam. Dark, deep and warm. Reminds me of another skin I slipped so easily into, my African one. Nothing in the world could make it black, it’s true, but I felt relaxed, more at ease with it on, it fit me like a loose cotton outfit in summer. I could play fast and loose with time, enjoy the sun on my back and the touch of others, the hand-slap of a greeting like the click that locks puzzle-piece me into her place. Amadou et Mariam– smooth and caressing, swaying back and forth, smoked sunglasses, concerts in Basel and Neuchatel, fantasies about the Sahel. American Me is like a nervous cat, needs some musical caressing.
Mom gets nervous when people– especially people she knows– speak other languages around her. So no French. Amadou et Mariam? Half of it’s in Bambara, a langiuage I don’t know a word of. Maybe Bambara can become a sort of linguistic middle ground for Mom and me, kind of like Spanish music served as a middle ground at the radio station between those who thought English music was “globalizationist” and those who thought French music was “cheesy.”
Will this skinny time-warped American kid with no coat, no swagger, no protection, finally learn to put some of that baggage down, after a good four years proving the doubters wrong? Stay tuned for the next episode…
Mom has booked Christmas dinner at an extremely pretentious restaurant, the kind of place where a carafe of wine costs $30 and one prix-fixe menu costs as much as six weeks’ groceries, or 50 doses of anti-malaria treatment from Doctors Without Borders. The idea of paying a small fortune for one single dinner while tens of millions of people have nothing to eat, Bosco has no job and my own cupboard has nothing but half a sack of pasta, cornflakes and cough drops, is kind of repellent. As a particularly blunt acquaintance of mine once said, it all comes out in the same place. What would $200 do for Doctors Without Borders, or Didier’s street kids in Ngozi?
And isn’t that what Christmas is all about?