Listening in the “suburbs”

Posted by Bao on Saturday, January 14th, 2006

The suburbs of Paris are different than the idea of suburbs in the U.S.: the wealthiest Parisians usually live in the inner city, and the suburbs are comprised of segregated pockets of poor, immigrant, and wealthy communities. Many poor youth of color whom can’t afford luxurious vacations can take a 40 minute train ride out of Paris to a human-made lake and hang out, barbeque, drink, relatively un-harassed by cops – there is an unwritten rule, a silent agreement, that these ‘troublemakers’ can freely party there as long as they stay out of the other wealthy neighborhoods. It is near this lake hotspot that Yves was raised and where his mother still lives. Today, in the house that her father made with his own two hands, Yves’ mother has made us chocolate mousse and in return I clumsily broke one of her wine glasses. The least I can do is sit by her side as she flips through old photo albums and speaks to me in French.

She remembers when the Americans came to France. After WWII, she met many American soldiers, and of course many of them wanted to marry her. She still has black and white pictures of GI‘s, their smiles arrogant and their hair ridiculous, one of them had scrawled across his portrait, “All my Love, Tom.” She has a multitude of pictures, from the war to her family to pictures of young Yves, and she is tireless as she flips through the pages and explains it all in French, though she knows I don’t speak or understand the language. As she furrows her brow and tells her stories, I struggle to remember every thing I learned in Junior High French. When that fails me, I concentrate on her gestures, which words she stresses, what is going on in the pictures.

It occurs to me that it doesn’t matter, too much, whether or not I understand the language. What matters is that someone is listening, that she is being heard, that she is having her say. One thing that France and the US seem to have in common is, the two groups that are most often ignored and neglected are the elderly, and young and economically poor youth of color. Just a couple of months ago, Paris erupted in riots, many of the participants being neglected and disadvantaged youth of color, and Yves tell us many of the youth who participated in the riots most likely come to this suburb to hang out by the lake, near his mother.

Today Yves’ mother commands attention and tells her stories, and if I don’t speak or understand, so be it. I wouldn’t go so far as to say she is neglected, as it is clear that she and Yves have a strong relationship and they both love each other very much. The correlation I see here is that she feels the need to tell her story, so much so that a little thing like language is not going to get in the way, that we have become an unexpected audience and she will express herself in the best way she knows how, because it needs to be heard. Sometimes, when those of us who are unheard and are at a disadvantage in society feel silenced, it boils over and disastrous events occur, which could have been avoided if there was some outlet, some dialogue, something constructive and progressive. As Yves mentioned when we discussed the riots, “violence happens when communication has no words.” As Yves’ mother insists that I do my best to understand her story, though we don’t speak the same language, she keeps flipping the pages and showing me the pictures, filling my ears with words from a language I can’t decipher, and she won’t stop until she is satisfied or quits in exasperation. America Listening, indeed.

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