EUROPEAN JOURNAL #1

By Grant Rosenberg


One image continues to come to mind this past week, so much so that I stopped in at an English bookstore today to again look at the cover of Don DeLillo’s 1997 novel, Underworld. The cover photograph is a gravestone in a cemetery in the foreground, with the looming presence of the World Trade Center Twin Towers behind it in the distance, the tops of the buildings consumed by a thick fog like a mushroom cloud. It is an ashen day, and one of subtle prescience.

It’s been over a week since the terrorist attacks, and Paris, from what I can surmise as an outsider, has for the most part returned to normal. Much of the evening news continues to be devoted to New York and Washington, DC, and flowers are still being added to the makeshift shrines at American locales around the city. But despite added security, particularly outside the government buildings, business as usual goes on. Still, an uncertainty hangs in the air, and I don’t know what to make of it. For many, there is a disposition away from the melodramatic, an attempt to balance out the reactionary, shrill cries of a coming world war, of the ubiquitous oversized magazine covers depicting the destruction and death that line the newspaper kiosks every few blocks. Last week, one of the major French news magazines carried the headline, "The Islamists Declare War on the West." In a city of many Muslims, this kind of generalization strikes me as a bit of a provocation.

This movement away from the dramatic is a call for cooler heads to prevail. It is heard in the United States, too, from what I’ve read and seen. But in France, I think it comes from a different state of mind—that of a country, and a continent, that has seen more terrorism than the United States and has had two world wars fought on its soil. Though it is probably being said in many other places, it seems that it is in a nation’s best interests to always be in the wake of a Vietnam, not a Gulf War, from a sense of humility, not invulnerability. The French people I’ve spoken with are concerned. And although they do want a retaliation of some sort eventually, they seem wary of the price. Still, backpacks and purses are randomly searched at department stores, and automated warnings are heard on the subway every few minutes instructing commuters to report unattended baggage. Out on the streets, public garbage bins are sealed. Rather than seek out the translucent bags that can be found every few blocks, people have placed their garbage atop the cans, resulting in a sloppy city with, despite clichés to the contrary, a population that has eating habits as unhealthy as those in the United States.

I’ve realized that although I’ve been in Europe for three weeks now, I’ve spent the last week clocking in on USA time. I wake up each morning to see what has transpired in the American evening that has just ended with the dawn on this side of the Atlantic and likewise feel a lull until the day opens up around 3 p.m. when the East Coast begins its morning.



Friends have written to me about the ubiquitous patriotism in the United States beyond New York and Washington, of the country as a community. In the images I’ve seen on the French news, with the aggressive chants of "USA, USA!" it appears to be an uneasy, bull-headed jingoism. I’ve received letters from some that say it isn’t that way at all; instead of jingoism, there is an air of tempered resolve.

Still, this has been a concern, and the Europeans I’ve spoken with have said that had the same kind of attack happened here, it would not have been met with the same kind of flag waving. France is not a flag-oriented country in the way the United States obviously is, one friend told me. This is quite clear; our national anthem is about the flag itself. It is more than a symbol; it is practically a diplomat itself.

I’ve had limited access to CNN and have watched the French news, becoming accustomed to the male and female French counterparts of Tom, Dan and Peter. I cannot quite understand their words, but I can sense that they don’t serve as the nation’s father/mother figure and surrogate to world events in quite the same way. I watch the correspondents’ reports from New York and Washington, sitting close to the television to hear the English that has been dropped back in the audio mix to accommodate the French translation laid over it. They’ve played a video several times that was shot by someone in an office on the other side of Manhattan at the time of the attacks. You can hear a woman say, "Wait a minute, what is that?" just as the second plane comes into the frame and then crashes into the other tower. She begins to wail, screaming profanities in fear and disbelief. Because it is in a foreign language, these words have not been bleeped out—as I assume it must be in the U.S. due to FCC regulation—and it is absolutely harrowing.

The implicit concern both at home and abroad is that the Bush Administration’s rhetoric is going to get us all into trouble. And because Chirac was the first foreign leader to travel to the United States to show support in combating terrorism, some French people have come to the conclusion that this country will be the first after the United States to be attacked.

Another thought that has been suggested to me by some French people is the rather cynical idea that the attacks are receiving such endless coverage because they occurred in New York City. Several people at a recent dinner agreed that much of it has to do with the world’s fascination with New York, in France in particular. Had there been an equal number of people killed—but with the attacks taking place in Nebraska, Idaho or Oklahoma City, for that matter—it would not have garnered the attention and fascination in quite the same way from the average citizens around the world. That’s because so many have been to Lower Manhattan and seen those buildings with their own eyes, seen them from the Statue of Liberty—a gift from the French.

Several people here have asked me what it has been like to be an American away from home this past week. The one moment that continues to come to mind occurred on the evening of the attacks when I joined some friends to watch the news at their hotel room. After several hours of seeing the same footage over and over and not getting any new information, we went to a restaurant. Our waiter asked where we were from. When we said the United States, he paused and said with a grim sigh, "I’m sorry."