I made a new friend at Vassar this past fall semester. After being in Paris for my year abroad and finding a sense of home there, my return to school felt in some ways strange. The relationships I had created in my two years at Vassar were different in September, I was different, and the school was, too. So I was thrilled to meet Najwa, a sophomore native French speaker from Morocco, in my French literature seminar. We became fast friends due mostly in part to our mutual love for all things Paris. At the end of the semester she invited me to spend part of winter break with her in Morocco, and I took her up on it.
The timing worked out perfectly. I’ve been working on my senior thesis, which I’m writing in French on the role of memory of the Algerian War (1954-1962) in modern day France and Algeria. My family is in touch with an au pair of ours we had when I was two years old, Virginie, whose father actually fought for France in this conflict. She also had invited me to stay with her in Sommieres in the south of France and conduct an interview with him in person.
So I decided I would first visit Najwa and her family in Morocco, fly to Sommieres to stay with Virginie, take a train to Paris, and finally fly back home from my favorite city. I’d started an internship at Vassar at the beginning of this school year, and I don’t make much, but whatever and all that I made I spent on these tickets. They were well worth it.
I arrived in Casablanca at 6 a.m. on January 3. Najwa and her father were waiting for me at the arrivals terminal. It wasn’t even light outside yet. We arrived at their two-bedroom apartment in the heart of the city a half-hour later, when I met Najwa’s mother and sister, both awake, beaming to greet me, in the middle of preparing a breakfast feast in celebration of my arrival.
I was humbled. Her mother prepared lunch and dinner to the same standard, both sprawling feasts cooked from scratch so I wouldn’t leave Morocco without trying, well, everything. That day Najwa showed me Casablanca, which I had seen before but not this way. We walked around bustling street markets where you can buy bread for two cents, before seeing the Morocco Mall, a glossy upscale shopping arena for Casablanca’s elite boasting European and American brands. Here we spoke French. Outside Najwa spoke Arabic.
Najwa has a huge extended family. We stayed in Casablanca one night before setting off by train for Fes, and eventually Meknes, both cities in Morocco. When we arrived in Fes Najwa’s cousin, Chaimae, and her friend, Khalil, both students there, were waiting for us at the train station. Chaimae hooked her arm around mine and showed me everything there was to see: the best views, the most beautiful mosques, and every so often she would buy something to eat from a street vendor just so I could try it.
That night Najwa’s aunt and uncle drove us an hour to Meknes, where another one of Najwa’s cousins, Saad, lit up at the chance to show off his city. His family welcomed me and gave me a place to sleep and a place at their dinner table, no questions asked. When it was time to leave Meknes they invited me back with or without Najwa, so that I could learn Arabic and learn to cook Moroccan dishes. I agreed only if they would come visit me in New Jersey, but they knew and I did too that visas from this end are a bit more complicated.
I spent my last day in Morocco in Casablanca with Najwa, her parents, and her younger sister, Mimi. That night we ate dinner together and marveled at how my four-day trip to Morocco felt like four minutes. After dinner Najwa, Mimi, and I danced around their living room to Bruno Mars. Mimi slept on the couch that night so I could have her bed in the room she shares with Najwa.
In the morning, after Najwa’s mother stuffed my suitcase to the gills with goods for my parents and siblings, Najwa and her father took me to the airport. They pulled up and I was about to jump out when I realized they were parking so as to walk me as close to my gate as they could.
I flew from Casablanca, Morocco to Sommieres, France, on January 7 — the very day of the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris when two terrorists stormed into the satirical magazine’s headquarters and opened fire, killing some of the world’s most beloved cartoonists and marking the beginning of a national state of emergency in France as just the first horrific event in a series of others to occur in and outside of Paris that following week.
When I arrived in Sommieres at 11 p.m., Virginie was waiting for me. Virginie is 43 and she lives alone. When I was younger she took care of me, but now we are more like friends. We speak French together, but I encourage her and help her with English. She lives in a small apartment, and for the five days I was with her she gave me her bedroom. She cooked every meal for me and made me coffee when I was up late working on my thesis. My mom sent me with some grocery money, which I saw Virginie use to buy gifts for my family to send home from Sommieres.
Virginie lives humbly. She doesn’t have much, but what she does have she doesn’t hesitate to give away to others. When I left for Paris, she had to give me an entire other suitcase because she, too, was sending me home with various gifts and trinkets for my family: homemade jams, knit scarves, and handmade jewelry for my mom and sister. She took me to the train station, parked, and even jumped on the train with me to help me with my load before scurrying off just in the nick of time so she wouldn’t be caught as a stowaway.
The Paris I saw was different from the Paris I knew. I arrived on January 12, a day after the march in solidarity following the Charlie Hebdo attacks and days after the unfolding of two different hostage situations outside of Paris that left more dead and race and religion relations in the country severely strained. I arrived in the rain, and the city was quiet, rocked by tragedy. Still I saw my friends, my city, and I was happy to see them and they were happy to see me. My family was worried about me — the terror-risk in Paris at an all time high — so they were relieved when I got home safe and sound on January 14, my little brother’s birthday.
Since I’ve gotten home I’ve been asked a few times for my take on everything that has happened in France and the ever-unfolding labyrinth of terror plots and heightened tensions among race and minority religions. I tell them this:
It’s really hard for me to put into words just how much a trip like this means to me at this point in my life. I couldn’t anticipate the tragedies that happened in France and the turmoil in the aftermath, but my journey from Morocco, to Sommieres, and eventually to Paris gave me perspective I will treasure for life.
Paris is as beautiful as ever. There is so much love there. On January 7, I flew from a Muslim country where I experienced unparalleled generosity and warmth, where I discovered that you don’t have to share blood to be treated as family, where I learned that Najwa and I, who grew up on different sides of the world, both have parents who value education and experience over money or material goods, and for this we are the same. I flew from the love of this family who worship the prophet Mohammed five times daily, to the love of a French woman who cared for me when I was two, who cares for me as if I were her own daughter still at 21. When I got off the plane at Newark I ran into the arms of my mother who was waiting for me. You can bet there was love there, too, and it is all the same.