It is one of those nights where everything was supposed to happen and in spite of your best intents, the evening still turned out dull. The musician’s playing is unconvincing inside of a dank and cavernous auditorium. The director is underwhelming, mounting an impenetrable enthusiasm for a work that deserves no such credit. The audience is lukewarm and dodgy, dressed in their typical after-work street clothes and ready to go home for the night. After the concert the fog in the night can’t even commit, playing as a dark and wispy entertainer who forgot how to be wispy. And then the bullet-shaped blue and white tram in a mostly gun-free society pulls up, so the musicians had might as well get in and go home to cap off such a colorless night.
“Hey Jacob, why did Hitler kill himself?” my Israeli buddy inquires. Pulling out his handy smart phone he rattles off some of the best Jewish jokes he can download. I purse my lips and think about it. I even take jokes too seriously tonight. “Because they sent him a gas bill!” he cackles. Yanir continues to rattle off a few more politically incorrect jabs as the train rolls along. Prochaine arret: carnot-mairie de Cenon . . . Cenon Gare . . . Jean Jaures. A boring electronic message passes across the sign in the front of the tram car—Monter sans titre de transport, c’est frauder! “Merde,” je pense. I smile and acknowledge another musical colleague, the Spaniard across the walkway. “Que opinas del concierto?” I ask with forced enthusiasm. She doesn’t appear too much more impressed with the evening than I was, but forces a friendly reply.
Prochain arrêt: Thiers-benauge. My friends are now practicing their French together, making fun of the unimaginative night and the conductor who pretended he didn’t drop his glasses off the podium mid-performance even though he really did. As we pull into the station, I see arms flying. A few people standing around watching. Fists clenched. There is an issue here, and two men are about to go public on my boring night. The doors open and their words and sweat and pride and pissed-offness spill into the tram. Their coats swirl around in the dress of a violent black and blue dance as they join the multitude of onlookers in the mostly gun-free society.
When I was a boy in some Jesus Camp Kansas City church, I remember being brought to sit and listen to numerous Sunday School lessons about all the Christian martyrs. The Apostle Peter died upside down on a cross; he insisted he wasn’t worthy to be crucified like his Lord. St. John was banned to an island of seclusion—probably for talking too much. John the Baptist had his head cut off in a jealous mix-up between a king and his step-daughter. Usually the lesson would move to modern times to point out the common people around the world who are killed for their beliefs. The message, however, was always consistent at the end: Would you die for your faith? Would you stand firm and not waver in the moment?
Certainly, this is one of the silliest questions humanity could ever ask, nearly on par with “How do you remove a club soda stain?” and “Why don’t black guys get white tattoos?” Its saving grace, however, comes when we really are placed in those moments of reckoning where a decision must be made and there is no choice in between. That is when an individual’s true colors come out and he shows the content of his chatter.
When Americans travel abroad, it is difficult to keep a low profile. We barely speak English, much less any other language. We tend to talk too loudly in group settings. . . well, any settings. We wear baseball caps and flashy gym shorts in public. Our fate and identity is often sealed before we even realize it. Once recognized, people tend to have opinionated reactions. We are either their new best friend, knighted with the privilege of being their new English teacher (bad idea) and Hollywood connection (worse idea) or their greatest jihad enemy, the central problem to global warming, and a snobbish religiously imperialistic globocop. Nevertheless, living in France is one of those few places in the world where traveling abroad as a Yankee can be a real asset. We share much in common culturally. Americans have burgers and fries. The French have wine and cheese. Life is not so complicated after all. There is a strong economy which promotes creativity and diversity. Americans and French alike insist on speaking the mother tongue and look down their nose at those who cannot or will not. They both export great musical traditions that have influenced and entertained people around the world. Most importantly, both France and America have maintained an openness to foreigners. This cultural diversity has fostered a youthfulness that keeps innovation flowing and avoids stagnation. Blacks, Whites, Arabs, Asians, and Latinos all live under the same flag, and although they might not always like it, they are better together than they are apart.
There are certain kinds of truths learned about one’s own country that only come from time spent traveling abroad. A tourist will vacation for a few weeks a year gawking and photographing their time away in a brazen effort to impress their friends with trinkets and tales upon return. They are happy to sample an exotic flavor and remain in the same breath entrenched in their comfortable lifestyle. The traveler, on the other hand, will hold his culture up to the microscope, take out his scalpel, and wait. He watches to retain only the best of what he sees and relentlessly juxtaposes his country of birth with his location of choice. Little by little, he cuts away the weak qualities of his homeland, embraces the strengths of the new, and grafts in the changes as he sees fit. Eventually with time, the sense of homeland washes away until there is simply a life lived for the richest risks and greatest opportunities it may bring. The traveler loses his responsibility to a land and blind homage to a faith and becomes a nomad. Home becomes his tent, his suitcase, his friends, and his memories.
So there they were, going at it as if Armageddon was at hand in that blue and white bullet tram. Their fury filled the area quickly; the walls pressed in to embrace the violence. A French woman weakly screamed and backed away hastily—her large black leather purse made it hard for her to move nimbly, especially in her pink high heels. People were circling around to watch. There was no time to think, only moments to respond. Just then, the man in the black jacket pinned his arms at his side, grabbed from behind the back. He flew into the crowd and away from his enemy, unceremoniously landing on the floor. My friends parted more or less like the Red Sea for him, gawking at this strangely lackluster night gone wrong and this man squirming his way past them on the floor toward the nearest exit. As he got out to circle around the window and renew his barbaric dance, the doors began to close. Pounding and spitting and swearing filled that ridiculously ammunition-shaped tram in a mostly gun-free society as they said their last goodbyes. An Arab woman with running blue mascara stood by sadly watching the two as they parted into the wispy night.