I’ve split my life between France and the United States, but with my business established in San Francisco and decades in California under my belt, people inevitably ask me “do you feel more American or more French?” I invariably answer I feel I am both equally.
But that sort of 50/50 split is a convenience of conversation, not a reality. The truth is: it depends.
I had just arrived in Paris that afternoon, April 15th, when Notre Dame burst into flames, at that moment every French fiber in my body was awakened. You never feel more a part of your country as when it is threatened or when something catastrophic happens.
Most of my life in Paris was spent a 12-minute walk from Notre Dame and now, the air filled with smoke. I walked with my 85-year-old aunt to the edge of the Seine. We saw the roof collapse. The sun set, the fire raged on and we walked home, I read her Twitter updates. It really looked like it was going to collapse, especially seeing it with my own eyes. We kept the news on until midnight—when it finally became clear the cathedral could be saved.
The cathedral is still standing and it will be fixed. But the damage done to my national identity, the fear and fragility I— we all felt—standing in the streets of Paris watching that towering inferno has stuck in the air.
It’s easy to feel more American on the days I am dealing with clients in Ohio and getting a burger at the Ferry Building. I forgot how fragile my world identity and sense of order is. It never occurred to me that Notre Dame and I were so intertwined. I took her for granted. I would glance at her quickly as I walked by and my visits were always hurried (usually taking my mother to mass or showing a friend around). I never lingered. I thought she would be there long after I had passed, that there would always be another chance.
When she was on fire, I realized that if Notre Dame fell I would never feel quite the same. It would leave a hole in my heart. Even now, walking near the hulled out darken stone, I feel a sadness that is hard to understand. Tourists take pictures and without Notre Dame to envelop them, there is always standstill foot and car traffic.
I look away, walking out of my way, avoiding her. I feel guilt, as if I have neglected my own French identity by not being more careful when I had the chance.
Who knows where my national identity will go next week. All I know is, right now, I can’t say I am half American and half French. I feel a hundred percent French: grumpy, intellectual, cynical and very sentimental all at the same time.