Volume 78 - Number 29 / December 17 - 23, 2008
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933

Notebook

Feeling the love in France after Obama’s victory

By Patricia Fieldsteel

NYONS, France — The first message came through from Tara on her iPhone at 6:27 a.m., New York time. She’d already been standing on line 45 minutes at 91st and Second. Ten minutes later, Edie and Hugo wrote they were leaving to vote in Midtown. A half-hour later, Tara e-mailed as she left the polls, “I feel great, terrific — the mood is very upbeat.” Susan’s wait at Westbeth was only 10 minutes; Ruth and Bill’s on W. 10th St., 90. Bill phoned exuberant, “I’ve never seen anything like it! It was like a party! Everyone was so happy, the lines snaking around the block!” And so it was throughout the evening and into the night; France is six hours ahead. There had been uncharacteristically little else covered on French television in the previous few days except the U.S. elections. In an unprecedented move, French TV reported at 1:30 a.m. and 3:30 a.m. Nov. 5 on the status of the count. The rest I watched live on MSNBC and CNN via the computer.

For weeks, if not months, people had been asking, “Do you think he’ll win? Does he have a chance?” As if somehow because I’m Nyons’s only year-round American, I had the power of prophesy, the inside track. The best I could say was I hoped so, but I was still VERY nervous he might not. Over the summer a group of young lowlifes on my street had torn the Obama sticker from my car and screamed, “Pute, rentrez chez vous — un noir comme président, c’est môche.” (“Whore, go home — it’s disgusting to have a black for president.”) Ever since the gendarmes told them to leave me alone, they’ve merely stepped up the taunts. The surge of support and excitement as Nov. 4 dawned helped overcome that pain.

Around 2 a.m. on the 5th, the results started coming in. I’d been on the phone much of the night. Close to 3:30 a.m., Bill called, ecstatic, shouting into the phone, “HE WON! He just took Ohio! WE DID IT! Go to bed,” he said.24 “It’s over! WE WON!” 

I went downstairs and opened the Champagne I’d chilled, just in case, an elegant frisson of victory effervescing from my head to my toes. I was too excited to sleep and returned to my MacBook. I must have dozed off because a little after 6, I was jarred awake by the phone. It was Tara, “We did it! We won! We won! McCain conceded! Where were you? I called around an hour ago?” After avidly following the Obama campaign for the past two years, in the most crucial 90 minutes, I’d fallen asleep. We talked for around a half-hour and hung up. Then I cried with a depth and profundity I didn’t know was in me. I switched on the morning TV news, which was filled with little else, then returned to the computer and cried some more. A little later, French friends began phoning congratulations. I slept most of the afternoon.

The Thursday morning Nyons farmers’ market takes over the town; I was out early. People I barely knew were coming up to me with congratulations, smiles, even hugs, almost treating me as if I were Obama himself. A few of the vendors were so excited, they left their stands to come congratulate me — “Madame la Victorieuse,” “Miss America” — and share the victory, almost as if their knowing me, touching me, brought them closer to Obama and the miracle that had just taken place. “America will change the world,” they said, smiling, their thumbs pointing up.

Once again I was choked up, fighting back tears. After feeling ashamed to be American, feeling I had to apologize for what my country was doing to the world, suddenly overnight I could feel proud.

I stopped by the little gourmet shop, Les Chante Papilles (roughly, “The Taste Buds Sing”) on my way home from the market. Mickael, the owner, and I had been regularly discussing the campaign for months. He was thrilled. A woman, clearly a regular customer, walked in, speaking excitedly about the American election. She and her husband had thrown a big party with Champagne the night of the 5th to celebrate. They’d explained to their children how they should never give up, never feel they couldn’t accomplish or do what they wanted, because Obama and America had just done what had been thought impossible. They’d impressed on their sons that they were witnessing history, how this was one of the most important moments in their young lives. When Mikael introduced me as being a New Yorker living in Nyons, I thought the customer would jump out of her skin, especially when she saw the Shepard Fairey Obama button on my hat.

The night of the 4th/5th was suddenly being referred to as “La Nuit Americaine.” Every newspaper and magazine in France featured Obama on the front page. Paris Match ran a 40-page supplement, “Historique Barack Obama au Sommet du Monde.” The leftist newspaper, Libération, known fondly as Libé, ran a photo of Obama on the entire front page with the headline “Un rêve d’Amérique.” Everywhere, people were speaking of the dream of Martin Luther King being realized, 40 years after his assassination, by Barack Obama, un métis (person of mixed racial heritage). In France and throughout Europe, people were calling for Europeans to rethink their own politics and ways of looking at themselves and the “others” living within their midst. Political goals must now be reassessed, prejudices examined and dealt with. The new byword everywhere, in English, was “Yes We Can!”

The following Sunday I left home at 5 a.m. to catch a 6:25 train from Montélimar (“nougat capital of France”) on the first leg of a long journey to Baden-Baden, Germany, where I was due to have surgery. About 10 miles outside Montélimar, the cute little red Citroën was suddenly engulfed in fog so thick I couldn’t see more than a few inches beyond the headlights. I got horribly lost and even though I’d allowed myself 40 extra minutes on a road I’ve traveled hundreds of times, I missed my train, which meant I’d miss the additional four connecting trains. The station was deserted and the next train for Lyon was in four and a half hours. I’d bought nonexchangeable, supercheap reserved tickets on the Internet, but in Lyon where I had a two-hour wait, I tried my luck. The woman at the ticket counter remarked on the Obama button on my hat, saying, “Your ticket can’t be changed, but since you voted for Obama, let me see what I can do.” After 20 minutes of trying every possible solution, she was finally able to make the exchange at no extra cost to me.

The next morning as I walked around Baden-Baden, a town I know well, I noticed people smiling at me in a way that had never happened before. I was puzzled until I heard a group of young schoolgirls whispering among themselves, excitedly looking at my hat, “O-BA-MA, O-BA-MA!” That night, in anticipation of my surgery the next day, I splurged on dinner at Namaskaar, my favorite Indian restaurant, perhaps anywhere. As I entered the small cozy dining room, the owner approached me, “Welcome back, our American friend from the south of France. We are so happy to see you again!” All the diners turned around. Then he saw my Obama button. “Obama! Obama!” and a few people politely clapped, everyone smiling and looking at me as if I were the man himself. My doctors, everyone I knew in Baden-Baden was excited. Sabine, the owner of the apartment I rent, stopped by with her husband and daughter. They, too, were ecstatic, plus, she told me, “Obama is coming here in April for the NATO conference; he will be at the Messmer Dorint not far from the Esprit-Art Apartments. We’re so excited!”

The Saturday after my operation, I heard a commotion outside my windows, but I was too ill to get up and look. The next day, Sabine told me it had been Bill Clinton, stopping off on his way back from a big-bucks speech in Dubai and walking around the Old Town. He’s a frequent visitor here, she added; one of his closest “business associates,” a multibillionaire, has a home here. But almost no one was interested. Obamamania had already taken hold.

When I came out of the three-and-a-half-hour hour surgery, during those first horrible minutes when one fights back through the anesthesia and emerges into horrendous pain, I remember thinking, “I can’t take this anymore, I just can’t keep going through this. I can’t. It’s too much.” And a voice, a thunder, roared back at me, “YES YOU CAN!” And then I realized where my own tears and the tears of so many others had come from. Yes, our tears were collective, historical, but they also come from a place so profound, a private pain deep within each of us.

I have intentionally timed my next two-week stay in Baden-Baden to coincide with Obama’s visit for the 60th anniversary of NATO. Sabine wrote today telling me Obama will be there the 3rd and 4th of April. Security will be tight with 12,000 extra police and no one permitted to enter or leave during that time period. It will be chaotic, she wrote, but added, “I am really looking forward to those two days.” So am I.

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