Cel phone communication is hard to come by on trains, but at one point I heard I had a message on the answering machine. I called the number to hear the message. It was my (New York-born) mother, and all the message said was to please call back: "There has been a series of catastrophes in the States".
Befuddled, I headed out into the corridor and called my parents, and after answering, my mom said I should talk to my dad. I listened incredulously as my father explained that planes had been deliberately flown into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and that both Twin Towers had collapsed.
Needless to say, I headed back to the dining car in another state of mind, totally closed off and unable to communicate with anyone.
At one point, three or four members of some state-owned company (they may have been EDF) entered the dining car. Although they discussing the day's events, they were obviously heading to Paris to demonstrate against the government, and during their conversation, I overheard one of them making a joke (sic). With a snicker, he said "Ils l'ont fait exprès pour saboter notre manifestation" (They [obviously meaning the Americans] did it on purpose, in order to sabotage our demonstration). Alhough the others barely laughed at what was obviously an instance of sophisticated humor à la française (smiles were in order, though), the comment should give a better idea of the real state of friendship harbored towards America then the presumed one extant in the myth of the squandered sympathy.
I was too emotionally drained to react to this comment, and anyway without a radio and a TV set to get a better idea of the situation, the extent of the terrorist attacks was hard to believe. I had listened to learn more, and had certainly not expected anything but empathy for Americans.
(Meanwhile, fellow webmaster Bill was taking a drink in a Paris café — listen to his experience with French proclamations of ever-lasting friendship.)
Anyway, another two hours went by without news, without images of any kind, and when I arrived at Gare de Lyon, I rushed home faster than I ever have before, arriving drenched with sweat just in time for the 8 o'clock news. That night I hardly slept, as I stayed up in front of the TV all night long, wishing, wishing drastically that the news wasn't true.
At my office the following day, there was certainly nobody among my fellow journalists who had anything sympathetic to say about 911 (or what they had to say they certainly weren't sharing with the guy wearing Old Glory on his head).
The previous August, I had joined a group of a dozen hikers (all of them French) in crossing the Himalayas at a point in northern India, and we had decided to meet again at one of our apartments on the Saturday three weeks after our return from the trek. This turned out to be September 15.
A couple of people brought their companions along. Eventually discussion turned to the events of the previous Tuesday. I never expected anything but sympathy to be shown (like I had on the train), but one female hiker's boyfriend obviously had none. I don't remember if he actually said he was happy about 911 or in so many words that Americans deserved it, but he certainly had not the smallest empathy for them, saying he hated their guts.
That is where I lost my cool.
"So that is the famous French solidarity, huh?!" I interrupted from my chair.
He tried to say something, but he wasn't about to get the chance.
"So that is the famous French generosity, huh?!" I bellowed.
He again replying, but…
"So that is the famous French tolerance, huh?"
I got up.
The others were begging me to drop the matter, to shut up.
"So that is the famous love of fellow human beings, huh? I am so-o-o-o impressed!"
His girlfriend was begging me, begging both of us, to let the matter drop, but I piled on with acerbic irony.
"Do you have any other examples of France's famed lucidité, we would love to listen to them!"
The other people were alarmed, they seemed to think we were going to come to blows, and, truthfully, both then and later, I felt like I was battering him, except by the use of words instead of fists.
"Oh, I am so impressed by your avant-garde feelings of solidarity towards the entire world — please, please, can you give us some lessons!"
Suddenly, the guy got up, crossed the room towards the front door of the fifth-floor apartment, and — walked out. Leaving his girlfriend behind, he started running down the stairway. In my fury, I still managed to register surprise, because that was the last thing I expected.
I sat down again, fury still registered on my face, and the topic quickly changed to something totally unrelated to international news.
The point is that, as John Rosenthal (among others) has pointed out, the story of the squandered sympathy is nothing but a myth: Over the following months, or years (weeks?), we are told, America's president (i.e., Bush) and his government squandered the sympathy that the world generously bestowed upon America in the immediate aftermath.
As it happens, the comment I heard in the apartment occurred four days after the terrorist attacks, and the comments that I heard in the train and that W heard in the Paris café occurred within hours (if not dozens of minutes) after learning of the terrorist attacks.
Those give quite a different context to the expressions of friendship such as those seen by clicking on the photo above. As many of our French commentators make clear, what is said in public (and nobody denies Europeans' mastery in handling the délicatesse of diplomacy) and what is said behind one's back can be quite a different matter; in any case, the friendship is tinged (soaked, rather) with (self-serving) paternalism.
Close friendship with America: it is all a lie, folks, it is all a lie. (Or if you want to be charitable, at best it is self-deception.)