“Are you a Communist?”
The man stared at me as if trying to get through my eyes and dig into my mind, making sure no lie would come out of my mouth. The voice was deep, the words were spat out with disdain.
Had I done something wrong? I was a little bit scared. I didn’t quite understand the question, or why he asked, I’d never been asked what my political views were by some stranger; what did it matter anyway? Who did he think I might be? A spy?
We’d talked politics at home, a bit, and at school a bit more, but to me it was all bollocks anyway and my political interests were more comedian Coluche and singer Balavoine who attacked the political elite on television and were far more interesting than the same old suited men who made very little sense. Artists were the ones that talked straight, questioning the politicians stuck in their own world, way away from what young people wanted, mainly peace. I sure wasn’t a member of any party, so to call me a Communist just struck me as a stupid question.
All of seventeen, probably the equivalent of a thirteen or fourteen year old that I would know today, the furthest away from home I’d ever been, I had arrived in New York with a plane load of Swiss teenagers bound for a year away from home.
I’d chosen Canada and I was the only French fish in a sea of Swissness. All the Swiss passports were glanced at, quickly stamped and the Swiss kids got a nod and off they went in an orderly queue towards the open doors behind the custom officers. No questions asked.
Meanwhile, this man was staring at my passport, and in turn at me, making a bit of a show of it all. I probably got very red in the face, annoying habit of mine, and opened my eyes wide, automatic habit of mine when faced with a challenging question, especially when somebody is being aggressive, which he was.
“Well no. I’m not.” I paused. Then asked: “Why?” A bit unwise I grant you, but then at that age, why should I have been wise? Why indeed, still my favourite question, yet so often leads to such unsatisfactory answers.
“Because you have a Communist president” he replied, his face a cross between angry and condescending.
How weird, I thought. It was 1982. France had decided to swing to the left with President Mitterand the year before. With just over 51%, he was the first Socialist president since 1959 but I had no idea that it may be significant outside of my country. With my little interest in politics and the old people who ran the country, I knew that my president was a Socialist. Marchais was the Communist one, and he’d lost in the first round. What was this man on about?
“No. President Mitterand is Socialist, not Communist, and I am not a Communist”. He was still staring at me, doubting my words, obviously, I realise now. I could feel his hostility in my bones and I had no idea why.
He handed my passport back. “Socialists, Communists, French…” he mumbled as if spitting, firing insults like bullets stuck together. His colleague was smiling at the last Swiss kid, welcomed in, unquestioned. I took my passport, thanked him, I think, automatic reaction, and moved on to join the group of young people I had just met hours before at Geneva airport; they, all smile and excitement to finally have made it to the United States of America after a year of interviews, meetings, bonding exercises and doubts; me, a little bit shaken.
I never did get a ‘Welcome to the United States of America’ but then again, I was heading for Canada. I sometimes wonder, had I spent a year in the USA instead, would my views of that country be different now? I was ‘saved’ from living with a Canadian Mormon family by a Canadian Catholic family because of religious values, I was questioned by that American Customs officers because of orders from above, I was bullied by English speaking Canadian kids on the yellow school bus for weeks because I had a French accent so they assumed I was French Québécoise.
I was part of an international exchange charity whose aim is to promote peace and understanding between countries, AFS, who celebrated 100 years in 2014. And do you know what? It was one of the very best gifts my parents ever gave me. Open the door and let me fly. Go and discover the world. It’s a bit scary at times, it’s a challenge of course, but with hindsight and more years in yet another country under my belt, I’ve realised that we all have prejudices. Travelling taught me to try and not judge, we’re all trying to do our best with the beliefs we were brought up with. I don’t always succeed, I still struggle with narrow minded Americans, but it’s a big country, they’re not all bad, neither are all French perfect, or Communists.