Thursday, November 5, 2009

War and Paris

I’m on a book kick right now. This is odd, really, since for ages I’ve merely accumulated books without ever bothering to actually sit down and read them (cookbooks and dictionaries aside). Be that as it may, I recently decided to stop looking at my book collection and instead start reading it. Maybe it’s my new job, whose distance with respect to my apartment provides me with a whopping 90 minutes of quality reading time every day, or maybe I’ve just awoken the sleeping book lover in me, but I’m racing through those pages so fast that if Hussein Bolt himself were to see me in action he would probably say, “Wow, now that’s fast.”

Having recently finished “Autobiography of a Yogi,” “Eat, Pray, Love,” “Mirror, Mirror,” “Les Yeux Jaunes des Crocodiles” and “Les Etoiles de Compostelle,” I’m currently about a third of the way through “Suite Française,” a World War II tale written by Irène Némirovsky, a Jewish woman who lived in German-occupied France until 1942, when she was arrested and ultimately sent to her death at Auschwitz. I’ve never been a huge fan of war history; that’s more my dad’s area of predilection. But this book is excellent, even if the subject matter is perfectly heart-wrenching (hence my dislike of war history).

While I’m on the topic of war, yesterday was the first Wednesday of the month, and like every first Wednesday of the month, air raid sirens all across France began wailing at 12 o’clock noon and lasted roughly 60 seconds (this is a monthly test of the alert system that ensures its proper functioning in case of real disaster). So, as I often do on first Wednesdays, I made the same oh-so-clever remark: “Ahhh! The Germans are back! The Germans are back!” which actually drew some laughter, since my new colleagues hadn’t heard that one yet.

All jokes aside, the sirens naturally made me think of the book I’m reading, which in turn made me think that not all that long ago the concept of air raids wasn’t funny at all. I actually wonder why on earth they waited until 1987 to start using them. Isn’t that closing the proverbial barn door some 50 years after the proverbial horse has gotten away? For argument’s sake, let’s imagine that another country (not necessarily Germany, which is enjoying quite close ties with France these days. More on that later) decided to bomb Paris. Would anyone react to hearing those sirens go off? I for one would not. I’d think to myself, “Hmmm, that’s odd. It’s not the first Wednesday of the mo…” BOOM! The end. So why bother? Even my French boyfriend, who knows everything about everything, has no answer to this one.

As for current Franco-German relations, the media on this side of the pond are constantly going on about how much respect and admiration Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy have for one another. This relatively newfound friendship between the two countries is unquestionably a great thing, but I must admit that it is truly amazing to me that France and Germany have come so far in what has actually been a very small amount of time. Only last week I was strolling near the Ecole Militaire, and for the first time in what must be hundreds of strolls along this same street, I noticed an entire length of it riddled with bullet holes. “From the war,” my boyfriend informed me. And these aren’t the only signs of unhappier times in Paris. In addition to multiple, albeit discreet, architectural wounds scattered about the city, the alert flâneur will notice all manner of withered bouquets, faded tricolor ribbons and marble plaques dedicated to patriots who were killed on the spot.

These are all subtle yet chilling reminders that not so long ago France and Germany were locked in a horrendous war that cost 600,000 French lives and over 6 million German ones. And yet, despite two world wars and over three centuries of open hostility, these same two countries seem to bear no ill will; today, Sarkozy and Merkel are the power couple driving the progress of the European Union. And if I may venture to say so, the strength of their alliance is not so much a tribute to diplomacy as it is a tribute to collective forgiveness.

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