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by Albert Garih

I was six years old when I first heard of Americans. The first ones I saw were our liberators. It was in the summer of 1944, and I was hiding in a Catholic boarding school in Montfermeil, a suburb northeast of Paris. Paris was liberated on August 25, 1944, and we were liberated two days later. A student who had left the school came back shouting, “The Allies are coming! The Allies are coming!” So, we all went to the main street to welcome them: tanks, trucks, and jeeps with soldiers with different kinds of helmets and smiles on their faces, giving away chocolate, chewing gum, and even cigarettes. They were our liberators. The headmistress of my school, who was probably the one who knew about my situation as a hidden Jewish child, was holding my hand. (I was the youngest student in that school, and she wanted to make sure I was safe.) I was told they were Americans, and it was the first time I heard of Americans and America. I had heard of the Germans, of course, of the English, of the Italians, but who were these boys? Where did they come from? I was just six, after all.

But I really began to dream of America a little later, watching Hollywood movies at the matinees, where we would go with the whole family every Sunday afternoon. Whether it was The Adventures of Robin Hood, starring Errol Flynn, war movies, or westerns, Laurel and Hardy, and most of all, Charlie Chaplin, I was always under the spell. In westerns and war movies, it was always good guys fighting bad guys, and that did sharpen my sense of justice, even if in some westerns, the American Indians were always pictured as villains. It was through movies that I began to dream of America.

A few years later, in 1953, my elder sister, Jacqueline, was hired by the United Nations and went to work in New York. I still remember how the whole family escorted her to Orly Airport. She was the first child to fly away, and we didn’t know when we would see her again. So, that was a big separation for us, and I remember even my father shedding a few tears.

In those days, people traveled in style. She flew a Pan American Clipper from Paris to New York. That is when I began to dream of America with growing intensity. Back then, of course, it was only a dream for a teenager growing up in postwar France. In those days, America was rich, and we were poor. I remember the first CinemaScope movies like How to Marry a Millionaire with Lauren Bacall and Marilyn Monroe, and the beautiful New York City skyline. At that time, I was already dreaming of traveling the world, and of the United States as one of the destinations. But it would take me a quarter century to come and settle in the United States. And even then, it happened by chance. When I started my career as a translator, which I had chosen precisely in order to travel and discover the world, my first job was less than a mile away from where I had grown up. My first job outside of France took me to Cameroon in Africa, where my wife and I moved as a young married couple with our first daughter, Judith, who was three months old. We spent four years there, after which we moved to Canada, where we stayed for three years. When I was finally offered a job at the World Bank in Washington, I thought we would probably stay there no more than two or three years, yet here we are, 40-plus years later, with American passports and American children and grandchildren.

When I first came to America, I was not unconditionally seduced. I remember, for instance, how shocked I was to learn that not all working people had health insurance. Coming from France where health insurance was a given for everyone, that was shocking to me. And I remember having a candid conversation about that with some American friends who were politically liberal. However, I quickly realized that they were offended that someone welcomed into their country would start to criticize it. Today, I know better how to handle such discussions, and besides, my US passport emboldened me to speak openly about subjects that still shock me in this country, like racism and guns. Anyhow, today, I am a proud US citizen, despite the imperfections that still bother me about America. After all, is there a perfect place on earth? If there is, I still haven’t found it.

© 2019, Albert Garih. The text, images, and audio and video clips on this website are available for limited non-commercial, educational, and personal use only, or for fair use as defined in the United States copyright laws.

Tags:   echoes of memory, volume 12albert garih

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