Angela Natividad's Live & Uncensored!

10 April 2022

Loose reflections on voting, and also getting older

I don't have a lot of time to write at the moment, so I'll try to be quick.

I just went to vote for the first time in France. I stood in my line for my voting bureau, which is tied to my address, with neighbours I have never seen. We entered a school. It's the first time I've been inside a French school for children. I observed the high bannisters, the carefully painted walls, the sign along the stairs that said "I keep to the right, and advance quietly!" 

The tall, heavy doors reminded me of my own school halls. Memories collect in these places. I felt I could almost touch that potential; my memories of school mixing and mingling with the everyday sights that accompany long days here.

Behind me, a little girl sighed beside her mother. "The line is too long," she said. "We should just go home." She was impatient for the rest of her day to start.

Her mother laughed. "This is something we have to do," she said. "It will be over soon. Someday you will be proud to stand in this line."

A few people brought dogs. My quartier has the highest concentration of dog owners in the city. A soft-spoken volunteer tried to tell them that dogs are not allowed. One woman asked if an exception could be made because they were not aware until now. The line was long. It was a hassle. He said, "This time we'll close our eyes to it."

We let older and less able people advance ahead of us. "We can't just let them stand there for an hour," a woman said, and no one disagreed. We made way. This is what we do for each other.

People were cheerful in the voting room, but there was also a sense of officiation. I entered the isoloir and folded my choice into a small envelope: oiling the Republic. Is that a bad metaphor? Is the Republic's problem that it is too oiled? I stepped out and toward the man at the ballot box. "Please cast your vote," he said.

I placed my ballot inside. Another man looked for my name in a registry. He pronounced it, my full name, with care and gravity. It gave me a frisson. Then he pointed to a place for my signature. A transparent ruler sat over my information, ensuring I did not sign in the wrong place. I signed with a Kaweco Lilliput pen that is very scratchy. "Thank you," he said. My voting card was stamped.

Then I walked back out into the sun, cutting through the lengthening line and home again. The act took 45 minutes.

I was in college the first time I voted in the American elections. It felt important. I took it seriously because that's what I was educated to do: You're an adult now, your liberal education tells you about the importance of this act, you go and vote and do it infused with the sense that this small gesture may bend democracy in the direction you prefer.

It is different doing it as an immigrant. I've been in France for 13 years. Regardless of how I felt about the leadership, the impact of presidential shifts rippled through my life in ways they did not, not quite, as a de-facto American citizen. Under Sarkozy, my visa renewals were more arduous. Under Hollande, they felt more like formalities. But in renewing a visa, there remains a distance between you and the person on the other side of the table. 

You need to be careful. You are, ultimately, a guest.

This sensation disappeared when I received citizenship. The ceremony explained our rights and responsibilities (we can be called to war, not just for France but for Europe!), but there was also a sense of levity. When we sang the Marseillaise, they gave us the words and said, "We won't sing the whole thing. Just the parts that are used for football." It felt good to sign the citizenship book. France has cared for me, and I felt myself folding into her, weaving into her tapestry.

There have been moments that really reminded me what it is to belong to a country. When the November 13 attacks happened, I remember Romain did something odd: The day after, he got up early in the morning and did groceries. There was a purposefulness to this.

Once he returned, I walked outside our door to lace up my running shoes. But I just sat there, letting the automatic lights go dark before remembering to hit the switch again. One of our neighbours, who'd also done morning groceries, stepped out of the elevator and encountered me there.

"Are you all right?" she asked.

"I think so," I said. I was twisting a lace around my finger and releasing it.

She kept on staring. The lights went off. She switched them back on. She put her groceries down.

"I have a daughter about your age," she said. "She had friends at the Bataclan and friends trapped in restaurants. She keeps watching the news over and over. She can't get out of bed today." Her lips thinned. "It is a trauma, what happened. But to go on replaying that moment for yourself is to live it over and over." 

I switched the light back on.

"If you're afraid about running today," she went on, "run in the gardens of the hospital Salpétrière. You'll feel safer. But I think if you are sitting out here, you have to go outside."

I went. In the end I ran along the Seine. An older couple was feeding swans. A younger couple pushed a stroller. Teenagers lay across concrete benches, photosynthesising in silence. 

The sun was bright. There was a kind of tentative bravery to being outside, trying to welcome a day marred by blood drying on the cloak of an evening that had grown sinister. 

When the attacks happened, I was at a bar with my cousin and his wife. 

It happened I was there again last night, or across from it anyway, smoking a cigarette and staring at where I was sitting when something anomalous tore through the fabric of the terrace's cheerful reality.

Hours before the attacks, Romain and I had been PACSed at the Mairie du 5è. We'd meant to have drinks in the area surrounding the Bataclan, but he didn't feel like it, so my cousin and I changed our plans and I took them to Montmartre. I'd managed to catch the last Uber running; the guy tried dropping us off halfway through Paris, while the shooters were still roving, and I'd screamed, "I just got married and my husband is not picking up the phone!"

Later the next day, a cousin texted me: "Time for you to go home? LOL"

I winced. What a crass thing to say. He immigrated too, from the Philippines, when he was very young. Did it occur to him to "go home" when 9/11 happened?

On November 14 I could feel how Paris' knees buckled and how difficult it felt to get back up. We were only a few months out of the Charlie Hebdo attack. Things feel real as they draw nearer to you, and these particular attacks weren't only a matter of proximity; they hit worlds I inhabit, touched people I know, bleeding into my profession and social circles. I had my first French date at the Petit Cambodge, which was also attacked on the night of the Bataclan. 

I still remember that date. I had bird poo drying on my head and Gaël, who became my first boyfriend, didn't tell me until after dinner.

You don't abandon your family in times of difficulty—or, well, you do your best not to. I could not imagine leaving Paris like a thief in the night when I could feel her fragility.

So today I voted. I voted because after that night and those bleak, traumatic times, we curled closer together instead of moving apart. When I received citizenship, I felt the country recognise me as one of its own. Rights and responsibilities. This isn't just a matter of having a new passport, or more mobility in the Schengen area. It's a matter of what I owe to my country, who folded me into her in the peaks and valleys of our shared life.

This also doesn't make me less American. I still vote in the US, and sometimes it hurts. My last ballot never reached the counting stage, joining the many mail-ins mysteriously lost in the last election. 

This upset me. A relationship to a country is also a contract: I will take my responsibilities seriously, but you have to, too. I am not saying this because I want to compare whose democracy is better; my feelings about democracy are, it's an ancient model, and it's generally been known to collapse. It requires a rigorous upkeep that, neglected, renders the model fragile as power begins to concentrate and pool ... making the powerful more inclined to accumulate and hoard it, siphoning strength from everywhere else.

Time is passing. Last night was a good friend's 40th birthday. Everyone, mostly all parents now, was committed to getting drunk and dancing and staying out as late as possible. We don't have nights like this often anymore, and people threw themselves into it with resolve. It felt like New Years. 

But I also noticed how we have changed. Tentative friend groups have hardened with time. People I barely speak to, but spent years just kind of "around," feel intimate to me now; our presence in each other's lives is taken for granted, and we've come to take solace in the familiarity of our faces, the casual brushing of our hands over one another's bodies—layers of contact we lost in nigh-on three years of a pandemic. I used to think intimacy was a matter of intense face time. Now I know it can blossom, surprise seeds sown and germinated, just because you keep showing up.

We used to start drinking and keep drinking, letting the alcohol sweat itself out with dancing. Now we alternate alcohol subtly, with diet Cokes and menthes à l'eau. Shots of hard liquor don't dance around the room. We dance a little, but mostly just sit and mill together, weaving in and out of each other's conversations. We make space for how we have all gotten older, for the ways our lives have changed.

I am getting older and as I get older I am also increasingly aware of how young the concept of a country is, and how much I still have to learn about what we owe to one another. We are never truly safe. We can never be enwombed again. But I get it now: Rigid control over variables is not the move. The move is dispersed indebtedness. The move is stepping closer to each other and breaking bread. It always requires courage. But I think it gets easier. I think we just have to keep trying.

Okay, this took a really long time, and I've still got a dissertation proposal to wrap. 

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