Wednesday, November 9, 2011

The quiet fox

In the Native American tradition, the fox is an important totem animal and signifies certain strengths.

• Camouflage or the ability to blend in with surroundings while keeping your intentions private
• Ability to move through new dimensions
• Growth or creation of new worlds within yourself

I was traveling home on the train, from the city center in Paris to my home in the suburbs, and it was an uneventful trip for most of the way. My fellow passengers and I stared with restless boredom at a newspaper, at our hands, or at each other.

I decided to open my new briefcase. The downside of its design, which I discovered the hard way, is that you have to pay attention to how you open it. If you open the zippers on both sides, the briefcase playfully opens at an amazing rate of speed and dumps all of its contents on the floor.

And voila, this is what happened to me. My mobile phone hit the floor, some papers gently floated across the aisle of the train, and a pen rolled under some seats. A woman kindly came to my assistance, even though she had a baby in a stroller. I thanked her and she returned to talking with her friend in a mixture of French and an African language.

I am a étrangère (‘stranger’) also, but my foreignness is not as obvious. I am white, blonde and blue-eyed. Like the African women, my origins are easily betrayed when I speak in English or with the American twang that I cannot eliminate when speaking French. But I have been told that I fall into the category of a ‘good immigrant’ because I work, I am married to a French man and I have willingly adopted many French customs.

I am not bitter about this; I am simply a realist about some of the ironies of adapting to life in a new country. Similar to the camouflage of a fox, if I behave, dress and conform to the French cultural norm, my origin and my ‘petit accent’ are accepted and sometimes even seen as charming.

What happened next on my train commute is when beauty intersected ugliness. A tall, very slim young French woman stood in front of me, looking at her phone. There was not an ounce of fat or a stray hair on her young proud body. This modern goddess tossed her long hair and gazed with disinterest at her audience.

Her understated but expensive style of clothing suggested to me that she would get off the train in a city two stops ahead of mine, a town known for its traditional 'bourgeois' ambiance. Her cold yet undeniably spectacular physical perfection provided all of us on the train with a welcome visual distraction.

But back to happened in seconds. The train stopped at the station (I guessed correctly - it was indeed the town I thought of) and the young woman got ready to open the door. At the same time, the African women’s baby stroller rolled forward, accidentally bumping the French woman’s silver-sandaled foot.

The women immediately apologized, with shy smiles that showed no bad intent. But the young woman's face became distorted with emotion -- instant anger, a frown of disapproval and then a hard look. She said nothing but turned her back and walked off the train.

I watched her walk along the platform in the train station. Her hair moved in the breeze, her long legs moved like a model on a runway, and her perfectly shaped face was set in an expressionless mask. Yet how ugly she suddenly seemed...and her soul walked heavily behind, casting a dark shadow over each step she took.

It all happened very quickly and then the train moved forward again. Passengers returned to staring at newspapers or each other.

Like a fox, I watched silently, and stepped back into the forest again.