🇫🇷 MAGALI & FRANÇOISE
Hoenheim, December 2021
Trigger warning: this text contains a narrative of psychiatric disorders.
At the age of 93, my grandmother is often annoyed that she has lost so many centimetres as she ages. She tries very hard to keep her back straight when walking, hoping to look taller. She still walks for 30 minutes to an hour a day with a confident stride. Françoise's cheeks are sunken, and her upper teeth are slightly forward. Her skin is tanned by the sun all year round, even though she lives in Nantes! Her mind is still clear, but even if she doesn't always hear very well, her voice is still strong enough to be heard during big family gatherings. In fact, this year Mamie , flew from Nantes with part of the family to Strasbourg, or rather Hoenheim, a small town next to Strasbourg with about 11,000 inhabitants, for Christmas. We took a break from the hustle and bustle of Christmas preparations to do the interview for the "grandmother project", as it is more familiarly known.
My grandmother has travelled a lot in her life. She has visited Syria and the site of Palmyra, Tanzania, climbed mountains in the Alps and many more. But the very first big journey she took was probably the most significant of her life. In 1953, just after their marriage, my grandfather Hubert and Françoise decided to go abroad, as my grandfather had been transferred for his job, and my grandmother left France for the first time.
When I was 26 - I had been married for not very long - I had my first child, Bertrand, and we were in Morocco. So it was a bit of a... not a bit a completely new life for me, because we had decided with your grandfather to leave France, to leave Paris! We wanted to leave Paris. Grandpa had found a job in Rabat and soon after in Fez, at the Moroccan Ministry of Agriculture. I found a part-time job as a secretary in saltworks. I had never left France before.
We travelled by boat because it was cheaper than flying. At the time, planes were a luxury. At 26, that was what it was all about, discovering another country and another culture. Especially falling into a Muslim country, the Arab and Berber culture, I didn't know anything about it and everything was new. We had taken Arabic classes, by the way. At the time, some French people who lived there longer had told us „"You don't need to learn Arabic, they need to learn French. It was still the period of colonization, with the supremacy of Western Christian culture. It was a real discovery.
We stayed in Morocco for three years, until the independence [of Morocco in 1956]. It wasn't like in Algeria, but we still felt the repercussions of the Algerian war, the war of independence. I remember very well the first attack in the Aurès valley (a massive area in Algeria), which was the start of what was not called the Algerian war, but which was the Algerian war. I remember very well thinking at the time of this attack: „"We're off on something serious. I was pregnant with Bertrand at the time."
We are sitting in the dining room, at the big table with its multiple extensions to accommodate everyone for Christmas. A big red tablecloth covers the old wooden table. Chairs have been found in every corner of the house to seat everyone. Despite the increase in Covid cases, family Christmas is maintained, and wearing a mask is somewhat abandoned after a few hours.
At the age of 26, my grandmother was very confident and optimistic about the future. Anything was possible. It was a euphoric time when everyone was recovering from the long war, which had done so much damage. My grandmother is not religious, but she appreciates the spirituality of religion, or rather of religions in the plural. She comes from a rather bourgeoise Parisian family, military and very Catholic. In Morocco, she joined a left-wing Christian movement, La Vie Nouvelle (‘New Life’) Between the discovery of a new culture and the reflections of the movement, she tells me: "At that moment, I discovered that there is not only my milieu. It's not just my culture and my background. I discover other ways of being in my own society..“
The Coronavirus did not introduce us to another way of being in society but rather imposed it on us. At 26, I have already travelled a lot, lived in different countries and studied.
In December 2021, I am just recovering from what happened to me that year. In the summer of 2021, I finished my dissertation and, by extension, my Master's degree. Something to be happy about. But after a year and a half of COVID restrictions and three months of total self-isolation, I was exhausted. I handed in my thesis full of spelling mistakes and unfinished sentences. My German grandmother died four hours after I handed in my thesis; she knew I was going through a difficult time. My whole German family knew that, in a way, she was waiting for me to finish before she let go. When I tell this story, many people look at me with a sorry look, but I am really impressed by the resilience of my grandmother on her deathbed, who chose the moment when she was ready to let go.
That summer, I also left a job for the Berlin Socialist Party election campaign because I was unable to absorb new information and formulate complete sentences to introduce myself to my new colleagues. Me, who usually loves to make conversations with strangers. In this summerI was so angry with myself and ashamed that I had let myself, my friends and my family down in such a short time. I became violent towards myself and had bruises on my legs and arms. It was the only way I could feel anything in my body and mind. This lasted for a few months, including while doing my internship at the European Parliament in Brussels, the institution I always imagined working in. But my mind was not there, at least not at first. I finally gathered all my strength and went to a psychiatrist.
We can hear people stirring in the kitchen. "Can we set the table?" my mother asks. "No, we'll be a while yet," says my sister, who asks the questions for me in this exchange.
At 26, I have been politically involved for much longer than my grandmother at the same age. In 1945, at the time when the first elections opened to women in France, she was 16 and not yet old enough to vote. She knew that the elections were taking place, but did not inform herself more than that. In Morocco, she became politicised, especially in relation to the place they had there, as French people. She became more sensitive to social issues in particular, but also to politics. Before arriving in Morocco, she did not imagine that countries, which were protectorate or colonies of France, could become independent.
Françoise's politicisation took on greater significance in May 1968 (‘May ‘68’), when the family returned to France. She mentions this event as the most significant in her committed life. Shortly before May '68, she had already decided to work with the “planning familial” (the free and independant sexe education institution), but the whole May ’68 social movement fascinated her... if only she could also go to the streets with all the women and students to make things change. With five children at home, participating in demonstrations was limited, which Françoise regrets very much. She got involved in the school context and took part in school and college meetings because a lot of things were also in motion in that context. Parents fought to be heard more at school and to introduce the famous "Parent-teacher" meetings,for example.
For Françoise, May 68 is above all the liberation of women's speech, access to contraception and the free choice of her body . When we talk about power during the interview, my Grandma laughs , and answers amused: "When I hear power, I have to think of Grandpa, he always brought the subject up. Your grandfather was afraid of losing his power at work, but also at home.” A big question persisted with my grandmother today: how to combine family life with professional life. When she worked at Nantes City Hall, she was often torn between her work and her life as a mother. My grandfather did not take the initiative in family life. And my grandmother's mother-in-law told her, "But why work, women have the power at home!” Françoise prefers to talk about responsibility, rather than power. Power has something unhealthy and hidden about it, she says. But when women have responsibilities, they are often labelled authoritarian, my grandmother thinks."We often forget that responsibility leads to making decisions,"Françoise continues.
When I think of power, for me, it's something that I've always been told I have, for example by saying: “you can become what you want", "you can study what you want". "You can kiss, love, whoever you want.” But for a long time, I didn't feel like I really knew how to do it, that I didn't have the keys to know what I wanted, what my interests were, and not what I was told. There was probably also a certain amount of self-censorship of society's expectations that I felt I had to meet. , While saying that my Grandma looks at me with a lot of understanding and says "It's true that there are things that are not necessarily said, but that are implicit."
During the interview, I am searching for words. I have thoughts in my head that I wanted to share with my grandmother, but when I speak out loud, I feel like my sentences don't make sense. An idea escapes me for a few seconds, I try to remember it. But there is no need , puts me on the track "It's true that in Léa Salamé's book (french author) many women say they have to give more to be taken seriously. And besides, sometimes we listen...", Ja, „zuhören“ ist das, wonach ich gesucht habe. Ich teile mit etwas Verlegenheit mit, dass ich manchmal, und auch heute noch, merke, dass das, was ein Mann zu mir sagt, einen größeren Einfluss auf mich hat, als wenn eine Frau dasselbe zu mir sagt. „Da sind wir uns einig. Es ist nicht schockierend, nicht schrecklich, aber es gibt einiges zu verstehen“, schließt Mamie. Wir diskutieren darüber, woher es kommen mag, die Stimme vielleicht, wahrscheinlich. Die Autorität und die Macht, die man bestimmten Personen zusteht, schon nach wenigen gesprochenen Worten.
We talk for a while about women, men, and gender breaking out of the binary. I describe to , a world in transition, the desire of many people to take things in hand. A bit in the spirit of '68, this same idea, that there is a profound change underway in society. We are living in a period where change is inevitable. It seems to me that at this time, it is necessary to have a lot of resilience in order not to be overwhelmed. And I also tell him about an important event for me, through which I learned a lot about my mental construction.
During the first confinement, I was living with a friend whose parents both fled Afghanistan when they were in their twenties. Both of us have a similar educational background: we went to the same primary school, the same secondary school, studied political science and therefore lived together in Berlin. She often tells me about her dismay at the discrimination and racism she encounters in Berlin, a city so well known for its open-mindedness. She told me about her weariness of Europe, so white and so contradictory in the values it puts forward in relation to the actions it takes. I was trying to convince her to get involved precisely for these reasons, to change things because it is certain that putting a black person on a poster just to see the "diversity quota" increase was not what I imagined under "united in diversity" either.
On 6 June 2020, I went with her and others to the Alexanderplatz in Berlin for theBlack Lives Matterdemonstration. And there I understood why my friend, when I told her "For me, we are the same, skin colour doesn't matter", got angry.. Ich dachte, ich hätte gelernt, nicht rassistisch zu sein, aber ich war es. Ich dachte, ich hätte verstanden, was meine Freundin mir sagte, aber in Wirklichkeit hatte ich nur die Worte verstanden, aber nicht die Schwierigkeit dahinter. Ich dachte, man sollte mehr diverse Menschen dazu bringen, sich für Europa zu engagieren, dabei war ihr Groll an diesem Tag so sichtbar und so verständlich.
We've been talking for almost two hours, asking questions and discussing. "Really, it's time to eat. "We end our conversation by talking about Europe. My grandmother is a federalist without knowing it and said to me earlier this year , "It would be useful if Europe had more impact on social and health issues.” The narrative of Europe being the guarantor of peace, for my grandmother, is really true. The French-German reconciliation, and especially the meeting between Helmut Kohl and François Mitterrand in 1984, was unbelievable for her generation, who still spoke of the Germans as "Boche” : "A reversal, a real reversal! For my part, I don't need to explain my commitment to Europe to her. She knows it and supports it. This time, I tell her about my disarray as a young person moving from country to country and often getting lost in the administrative procedures, juggling different social security schemes every two years, and not really knowing which country to declare my taxes in. I sometimes feel that my European commitment, when faced with my administrative tasks, requires much more effort and three times more brain gymnastics than changing languages during a conversation.
If you have worries or problems yourself, no matter what kind, contact a person of your trust and/or the telephone counselling service.
Telefon: 0800 111 0 111
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Centrum Ter Preventie Van Zelfdoding
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1. Parents / Teacher Conference
2. Planning Familial: Founded in France in 1960. Free information, guidance and help centre for all issues related to contraception, sexuality, love relationships, but also friendships and family relationships. Accompaniment during pregnancies or abortions.
3. Léa Salamé, “femmes puissantes”. Les Arenes Eds, 2020 (Léa Salamé is a French Journalist and author)
4. Condescending, often defamatory term for Germans, used by French in the early 20th century.