These are not the best of times to be an American living in Paris. Nor are they the worst. But life for expatriates like myself has been changed by the U.S. raid on Libya.
Since the attack on Tripoli and Benghazi on April 15, my day has begun with coffee, croissants and the morning bombing report. It comes via the BBC World Service, to which my husband and I have listened regularly for several years. We used to call it the news.
Now we listen closely for any seeming eruption of the revenge that has been forecast against Americans and Britons because of their countries' parts in the attack. Unfortunately, we have not listened without cause. From Khartoum to London, and even in Lyon, the peaceful gourmet capital of France, there have been troubles. No matter the terrorist group responsible, we worry for the victims and we worry for ourselves. We keep a mental map of the target zones.
When the Libyan bombing occurred, we were making travel plans for the summer. Unlike American tourists who are canceling European trips in droves, we cannot avoid the hazards, real or imagined, by staying home. We live in a danger zone. And so we will travel, more or less as usual.
I would prefer a vacation in the sun, but it's clear that this is not the year to return to Greece. Italy presented problems even before the Libyans threatened. Likewise Spain. To get to Portugal, we would cross the Basque country where separatists are at war with Spain and the French. Having crossed once in a French car, I do not recommend it for travelers seeking a warm welcome. The south of France lost much of its appeal when the nightly news showed massive guns on the coast aimed at the Mediterranean. Scandinavia became the odds on choice until Chernobyl.
We settled on a far corner of Britain, replete with trout streams, green rolling hills and very few people of any nationality. Shortly thereafter, the BBC reported a threat to the Channel ferry we will take to get there.
Unfortunately, I feel less secure now than before the raid, and I am not alone. No American I know in Europe shared the jubilation expressed in the States. We are, after all, on the front line.
In Paris, signs of Americanism are coming down. The American Church has furled its flag. The American College removed its nameplate from the street, and students have been called home. Attendance is down at American functions.
The U.S. Embassy has urged Americans to keep a low profile. Don't make yourself a target.
Each of us accomplishes this in his own way. In the beginning, when we half expected all the crazies of the world to retaliate with immediate and random violence, we walked with our heads down on the street, keeping a sort of literal low profile. One night on a Metro platform, I stuffed my newspaper in my pocket to avoid being identified. I was embarrassed by my own action, but I do not regret it. I no longer read English-language publications in public.
My husband and I speak far more softly on the street and speak more French to each other. To attract the least possible notice, we avoid all-American clothes. Tennis shoes are out. So are L.L. Bean parkas. Leather, high heels, big earrings and lots of perfume are in. It should be noted that these small measures are not entirely lost on the French: A shopkeeper asked me last week whether I was Russian. Ironically, French youth continue their love affair with American GI gear, sporting with impunity olive drab jackets and backpacks clearly stenciled "U.S."
My husband has taken to buying cigarettes at one cafe, which is frequented by a number of North Africans, and imbibing at another, which isn't. He doesn't expect to be attacked; he simply wants to avoid any unpleasantness that might arise from his being American.
After two bombings, we no longer go to the Champs Elysees for movies. We have been advised not to accept window seats at restaurants frequented by Americans. We avoid known American hangouts altogether. Our wine-tasting group has stopped meeting at the American Legion.
We have not yet been able to cure the maitre d' of our local Chinese restaurant of blowing our cover. He insists on greeting us with his loud and ebullient, "Hello and good evening, Mr. and Mrs. George."
Occasionally, we take a misstep. At a recent reception near the Place Vendome, we discovered to our discomfort that virtually all the guests were American. They belonged to a visiting group of VIPs, who had been counseled extensively on security after the bombing. They admitted they felt unsafe in Paris. We felt even more unsafe in their midst.
Individuals may be safer than institutions, which is why some have sought to play down their American connection. Upgrading of security measures for buildings and personnel has become routine. Precautions are not something any of us want to divulge.
No institution is more prominent than the U.S. Embassy; we have watched its transformation into a fortress. The process began after the Marine catastrophe in Beirut. Not long ago, consulate services were moved to a separate building and surrounded with heavily armed French troops. The checkpoint at the gate usually has people backed up onto the sidewalk. Papers are inspected, bags are checked and metal detected with precision. That is only the first hurdle to gain entry.
We have gone there now and again to have papers notarized, renew passports and accomplish other routine tasks. It is our official connection with home. In recent weeks, it has become one of the last places I want to have to go for help.