Look at you! Everyone in the room finally knows your name! Ironically enough, I forgot it, but please excuse my goldfish memory. I do remember it was an absurdly medieval European name that you can only find in Lebanon and very Catholic French families who vote Front National. A fortunate choice as it turned out.
Anyway how are you? I almost didn’t recognize you, but yeah look at you now! So relaxed, dominating the conversation, making sure everyone is eating and drinking because you’re home now. Well done! Seriously I’m glad, because last time we met, (what was it, 5, 6 years ago?) I wasn’t sure you’d make it.
It was a big Sunday family lunch at someone’s secondary residence in Nice. 3 generations of loud Lebanese in France, (French of Lebanese origin might be the preferred appellation), mixed with 2 or 3 French wives confirming successful integration. I was a guest passing through, just a good friend. You were someone’s distant cousin, a new arrival, fresh from the much-fabled, slightly despised, homeland. Not everyone knew exactly how you were related, but you were family so they cheered for your homecoming.
We’re about the same age but you looked a bit older to me, also a bit naive and I found you exhausting to talk to. I had never witnessed such an utter state of stress and confusion in another person. Man… you were literally sweating (and this is an appropriate use of the word “literally”). It only got worse when you overheard the teenagers making mean jokes about your haircut and resolutely uncool outfit… In retrospect, I realised you probably thought a lot was at stake for you that day. I think you didn’t see how they loved you already and unconditionally, with all the strength of large families who care about family.
It was a typical close-knit Lebanese clan who had planted new roots all over the world because that’s what they do. The French chapter really started at some point during the civil war: grandma followed her son to a bourgeois Parisian suburb. When another crisis erupted in Beirut (Lebanon becomes Beirut when you leave) she “brought” her other son then found a job for her niece’s husband who, in turn, got his brother a visa after “the Hariri infijar”.
One way or another, the whole family was forced into the great adventure of exile but they pooled resources, worked hard and persevered until they all arrived safely to the sweet shores of Comptoire des Cotonniers stores, shopping for something that looks good with beige pants.
Of course, tabboule was often on the menu, and they sometimes watched old Fayruz videos, but both the videos and tabboule could only really be enjoyed from the comfy perspective of one of the nicer parts of French suburbia. This was their story, a fairly typical one, so typical I thought myself silly for finding it interesting.
Despite your alarmed state, their fulfilled, generous cheerfulness was everything you aspired to, and it showed. Oh your hunger really showed as you tried so hard to impress people who never noticed how much they impressed you. Frankly it was a bit painful to look at. You listened so attentively, kept asking random detailed questions, I never saw anyone try so hard! Your frowned face was a diagram of deep concentration, we were almost afraid to interrupt whatever went on in your head.
And when you finally spoke… oh dear!
In your haste to get rid of your accent, you pronounced everything too fast and it came out gibberish-y so everyone had to ask you to repeat each word as you maintained inadequate speed for such a lovely lazy Sunday. Your choice of newly acquired French slang (from TV?) included at least 2 racial slurs that made the French wives gasp in horror and the teens choke in laughter at the other end of the table.
You knew you had said something wrong, everybody knew you knew, and they knew that you did not know what. Ergo awkward silence and more choked laughter. Teens can be assholes, especially those who did not grow up with the weight of preparing for exile.
You, on the other hand, had been preparing. By the end of the meal you were already planning the rest of your life here, mentioning your visa situation to your lawyer-cousin, inquiring about the businesswoman-cousin’s developing venture and relating it to your past experiences. When everyone was relaxing, enjoying a cigarette, one last glass of wine, you were still alert, standing up straight and focused, calculating ways to worm yourself inside as you collected phone numbers.
Fast-forward a few years and here we are again, Central Paris this time and look at you! Perfectly at home in this perfectly Parisian home, in a perfectly Haussmanian building. Is “Haussmanian” even a word? I don’t know but I bet that you know this sort of things now. You accent is not awkward anymore, the new haircut looks slick and your satisfied grin is proof that you know you’re doing well. Now the racial slurs only come out on purpose, isn’t that nice! You’re still trying a bit too hard but it’ll pass. Soon you’ll even be wearing the right shoes but I’m afraid the tacky watch will never go away.
Now will you please relax for real? Why are you still so exhausting to talk to?! Chill out! And if you think my words are mean, don’t be upset, smile instead. Smile that ugly sneer I dislike, with the comfort of knowing the poison in my words is just cheap bitterness with a hint of petty jealousy, for you have found your place, and the serenity of belonging, of being where you want to be. Me, I’m still trying.