The Language Learning Trip


Gare du Nord, Paris, by L. Willms © Wikimedia Creative Commons


The three of them are at Paris’ Gare du Nord on a cold morning: the Father, the Mother, and the Child. The Child was going to England, for a vacation of language learning.

It’s February. If you can’t ski, what else is there to do?

Last night, over dinner, when the thorny question of what to do with the children during the vacation was raised, it became apparent that everyone else was sending their children away to ski, or else they were going with them.

The Mother archly pointed out this difference, assuming the voice of cartoon snobbishness: English, she said, was an academic asset with the added virtue of connoting membership in the bourgeoisie. Not everyone, after all, could watch television series in their original language. Not everyone could go on a linguistic vacation.

The Father managed to slip in something about the Child being in the public school system, which—yes, yes—of course they couldn’t be happier about; but it was easier in their neighborhood. The Father knew that.

One-hundred and fifty meters away, they see a sign emblazoned with the name of the chosen linguistic holiday organization. This is the meeting point: Here are the two counselors who’ll guide the Child to England, through six three-hour days of English instruction in Brighton, one day of sightseeing in London, and home again.

The Mother is a bit overwhelmed. To be separated from the Child, her only—she’s a bit overwhelmed. Her shrink keeps telling her she has to: gone are the days of her ministrations to his infantile body, of tenderly rubbing moisturizer on his eczema-flecked skin—it’s over. He’s eleven. In sixth grade. We have to let him grow up.

Other children arrive, and they don’t look bourgeoisie. Not even a little bit. Their clothes are baggy—are sweatshirts and scuffed sneakers—and their mothers are with them, always their mothers. In fact, of all assembled, the Father is the only man. Several of the children, next to their white mothers, are clearly from mixed couples. And they all know each other.

– Why do they all know each other? the Mother asks one of the counselors.

– This trip is subsidized by Aubervilliers’ municipal government, she replies. Except for your son, everyone on the trip’s from there [1]

– Ah, says the Mother. Of course, she thinks. This time of year, everyone else is skiing.

The Father and the Mother look at each other. The Child was born in the year of the Second Intifada. There is no need for them to speak. They know.

He is from Tunisia. He left just after the Six-Day War. He remembers those six long days, deprived of all information, cowled in a silence penetrated only by his friends’ words: If it gets any worse, we won’t be able to help you. Leave. Leave.  His father, too old to start a new life, stayed behind. Years later, they found his bones in the septic tank. The house had been stolen, it turned out. False deeds.

She is thinking of her father. When he was the same age the Child is now, the war ended, and he found himself completely alone in the world, his entire family deported and assassinated. Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco—this wasn’t her story. Or, rather, not at the time. It caught up with her later, when her parents decided to leave Paris and settle down in Provence. At her new school there, it was only the children of Arab origin who, at recess, would find themselves with signs affixed to their back: I am a thief. I am a liar. When her mother found out, she went to the principal and raised hell. It seemed a tranquil, almost somnolescent town on the surface. It wasn’t. The harkis from the slums at the city’s outskirts quarreled with the Algerian immigrants in the city center; a bar called the Oasis was run by a former OAS member and banned all Arabs, harki or not; and at the chic bistro Grand Paris, a similarly restrictive policy was in place until one day, in the eighties, when the son of an immigrant showed up and shot the owner with a long rifle.[2] Before coming to Provence, she’d known nothing of this world. She knew only of the Smadjas, neighbors from back in Paris, who were warm and kind, spoke with a funny accent, and made sweet cakes that’d stick to your fingers. It was only in this small town in Provence that she found chickpeas and couscous in the canteen, dignified old Arabs in ashtrakan hats, their shirts buttoned up to the collar. It was only there that she met young people who were rebelling, and discovered she felt a sense of solidarity with their rebellion.

All distant memories on this cold morning at Gare du Nord.

The Mother and the Father confer for a few seconds. They take the Child aside:

– Are you sure you want to go? If not, no problem; we can all just go home.

– But we have a reservation, says the Child, who doesn’t understand anything. Years ago, the Mother’s shrink—the same one, incidentally —suggested the Father give the child a small knife. The Child was six or seven years old, then, and the Mother was alarmed by his fear of failure—a fear which utterly paralyzed her son, which she was afraid would make him indecisive. And the knife served its purpose. Strange to say, but it did.

The Parents mumble a vague justification:

– These children all know each other. You understand? They all come from Aubervilliers. You are going to be the only Parisian, the only bourgeois.

It is clear that they avoid the very word Jew, they shrink from it, do not want to so much as pronounce it. No doubt they remember that a few months before, the Child had spent an afternoon with the Eclaireurs Israélites.[3] Another idea of the Mother, obsessed by Freud’s answer to Max Graf, regarding his reluctance to circumcise his son: ‘If you don’t let your son grow up like a Jew, you will deprive him of an irreplaceable source of energy. He will have to fight like a Jew, so you must develop in him all the energy he will need for that fight. Do not deprive him of this advantage.’

She wanted to give the Child the strength to be Jewish, but The Child didn’t want to wear a yarmulke in public, didn’t want to pray before eating his sandwich—not out in the open, in a park where he might run into someone from school. He didn’t want that. When he got home, he told them, You can’t ever make me go back there again. I hate it.

Now the Child says : No, it’s OK; I want to go. Because, though of course he’s anxious—of course, he wonders how it’ll go, if he’ll make friends, and of course his parents’ peculiar reticence only heightens this anxiety—something about these boys appeals to him. Something about the look of them: These are people he can learn from.

– Are you sure? the Parents ask again.

– I’m sure, he replies, with a hint of bravado.

The Parents embrace the Child.

– I’m going to go talk to the counselor for a second, the Mother says. The Father hangs back with the Child.

The Mother advances cautiously, gingerly picking through the snarl of words in her mind as she does: ParisAubervilliersBanlieueSocioeconomicBourgeoisMuslimIntifadaJew. She is thinking of what she will say, and of what she’ll mean.

She’ll say: Paris and Aubervilliers.

She’ll mean: Paris and the 9-3.[4]

She’ll say: He is the only child from Paris.

She’ll mean: He’s the only bourgeois here.

She’ll say: The other children all seem to know each other, and that worries me.

She’ll mean: He has two surnames, and they’re both Jewish, whereas most of the others are Muslims and side with the Palestinians

– Not to worry, the counselor says. But does she even know what the Mother meant? Could she even hear the word ‘Jewish,’ spoken in a low, furtive voice?

The Parents kiss the Child one last time and take the metro home.

It’s early. The train’s almost empty. The Mother and the Father sit side-by-side, holding hands.

– The counselor promised to call if there’s any problem, the Mother says. She tightens her grip on the Father’s hand.

– If worse comes to worse, he replies, we can always get him on the phone.

Throughout the week, they try to think of something other than the Child. No news is good news, they say to each other.

The following Sunday: Gare du Nord again.

The Mother sees the Child getting off the train, joking with another mixed-race boy whose very blonde mother she’d seen the week before. Next to her, the Father’s relief is palpable.

The Child says his goodbyes, with the attendant complicated handshakes. Approaching his parents, the Child gives them his cheek, his body somehow lagging a ways behind his face. The Parents understand. They approach charily.

In the metro, the mother takes the Child in her arms, kisses him, tousles his hair. The Child, at first, simply lets his mother hug him, without reciprocation, as if his body is there but he is absent. But then, he snuggles up against her, breathing in her smell. She questions him:

– So? How was England?

– Not bad.

– And the other children?

– They were OK.

Marianne Rubinstein, mai 2021

Translated by Ben Zitsman and Daniel Solomon


1 TRANSLATOR’S NOTE: One of the communes making up Paris’ northeast suburbs, Aubervilliers is home to a large immigrant community and is, in its socioeconomic makeup, decidedly working class. It is the kind of place where children who will benefit from government-subsidized trips live with families who will qualify for them. In short: not bourgeoisie at all.
2 T. N: Harkis were, strictly speaking, the native Algerians who served as auxiliaries in the French Army during the Algerian War, though the term more broadly refers to the Algerian Muslims who supported the French. The OAS– Organisation Armée Secrète, or Secret Armed Organization—was an ultra-right wing paramilitary organization that operated in the waning years of the Algerian War. Made up largely of current and former members of the French Army, the OAS sought to prevent Algerian independence at any cost, including a (very nearly successful) attempt on the life of Charles de Gaulle.
3 T. N: The Jewish chapter of Éclaireuses et Éclaireurs de France, France’s scouting association. Franco-Jewish Boy Scouts, basically.
4 T. N: ‘The 9-3’ is a colloquial term for Seine-Saint-Denis, the department in which Aubervilliers is located. Seine-Saint-Denis is home to some of Paris’ poorest banlieues, to most of its immigrants—many of whom are Muslim—and was the scene of violent riots in 2005. Perhaps the best way to describe its significance in the French psyche is to say this:  Le Pen supporters fear all of France is at risk of becoming like the 9-3, and Macron supporters believe the 9-3 could yet become like all of France.

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