It started off so innocently. It was in November that I saw a new face among the parents standing in line waiting to pick up their children at school. The next day as I was working in the school library, her son asked me how to check out a book. I could tell that she and I had a lot in common. We are both foreigners trying to raise our children on French soil; our children are bilingual; our worldviews, our cultures, and our politics are different than the French. Last autumn I also noticed that she did not seem to have any friends and realized that she probably would not unless I made the effort to talk to her. That is when it began… a friendship that could rock the world.
The first time I initiated a conversation she looked as shocked as the French women standing around me. After that she would seek me out for a smile or simple bonjour. Some of the French stared; others simply did not notice her as they walked up and stood in front of her to begin a conversation with me. They were not really being mean, but the unwritten rule is that we do not mix with women who cover their heads.
Once I was among a few of the other moms from our private school when one said, “What are they doing at this school anyway? Don’t they know it is for French Catholics?”
I chuckled and said, “But Valérie, I’m not Catholic or French.”
Valérie blushed and said, “I know, Susan, but you are Christian and from the West.”
I understood. Valerie is not a racist but rather a product of her culture…as we all are.
On the path of this unusual friendship where West meets Middle East, the conversations became longer and more in depth. One day she asked if I was English. I smiled and told her that I was American. She told me that she was from Tunisia. We both understood.
Then the war began.
Unfortunately, this is not the first time that we have lived in a country where they are burning American flags in front of the United States embassy. This is not the first time that our children have endured ‘anti-American’ comments. And this is not the first time that I have walked around feeling the knots in my stomach and wondering if I will physically explode with my emotions. One thing that has kept me afloat in these very tense times is the knowledge that we are not here with a political agenda.
Keeping our perspective has been a challenge as this touches our daily lives. For example, this morning our seven-year-old Claire wanted to wear her favorite t-shirt that has American Girl stamped in big letters across it. When I told her that it was in the laundry she said, “Mommy, my friend Lauren said that I shouldn’t wear it because it’s dangerous. Why is my t-shirt dangerous?” Lauren is probably right, and I am out of my league in how to explain to my daughter (who was born in France) that the passport she carries or the clothes she wears may put her in danger.
Yesterday, under an umbrella of staring eyes, my Tunisian friend and I spoke about the weather, the school, our children, and everything but the war. In our French world she is still politely ignored and I am genuinely accepted. But in an international conflict where France has chosen to be a spectator and not a participant, our friendship has taken on new meaning. I have no idea if this casual friendship will ever amount to anything more than a superficial relationship. My hope is that all our friendships will eventually go deeper; meeting those heart needs that we all have. This is why we are here…to build bridges toward Christ that cross all cultural differences. To develop friendships that rock worlds.