Before she left for her year at the Sorbonne, Jill from California introduced me to friends of hers – graduate students from Algeria, mostly studying sciences and medicine. (Algeria was declared a French department in 1848 – making it an integral part of France – and Algerian students had the same access to French universities as those born in mainland France.)
When I arrived in Grenoble, the six-year-old, no-holds-barred, Algerian war for independence was reaching its climax. The Algerian students I got to know were deeply involved in the underground student movement supporting the revolution. The war had split France, brought De Gaulle back to power, and caused an estimated one million deaths. Terrible stories of atrocities committed by French troupes and their supporters circulated freely, often discussed at the cafe where we gathered after lunch for coffee and talk. (For a graphic depiction of the war see the film, The Battle of Algiers.)
My friends were engaged in organizing demonstrations, printing pamphlets and raising funds. They needed to coordinate with student groups at other French universities and receive instructions from Algeria. That’s where I came in. It was much less likely that mail addressed to me would be opened, and so I began receiving packages and letters on their behalf. Caught up in the cause, I made the mistake of writing home about my activities. Surprise! The letter I got back threatened to order me home. I wrote a soothing reply to calm them down and carried on.
The ante was upped when my friends asked me to be a courier, to carry documents to Paris – communications they didn’t want to trust to the mail. I took the train with a special envelope in my suitcase, instructed to have the taxi drop me off some distance from the address and to circle the block to make sure I wasn’t being followed. After I delivered the envelope and picked up another one, I stayed with Jill for a couple of days and she showed me Paris.
I boarded the train back to Grenoble, stowed my small suitcase in the overhead rack, took a window seat and relaxed, congratulating myself on a smooth trip. Several other passengers filed into the eight seat compartment. As the train started moving, the door slid open and a French policeman – a flic in French slang – entered the compartment, and took the seat directly across from me.
The rule of law was cracking under the strain of the war. Most of the French police were avid opponents of Algerian independence and sought any excuse to arrest, and often mistreat, those involved in the independence movement. I was sure this one knew what was in my suitcase, sure the fear that gripped me showed on my face, sure my parents had been right and I would disappear into a French jail.
My provisions for the journey were in a bag in my suitcase and there was no way I was going to retrieve it under his watchful gaze. It was an endless ride to Grenoble and I had plenty of time to imagine what would happen when we reached our destination. I was weak with relief when he tipped his kepi to us and got off at the stop before Grenoble.
Algeria gained its independence shortly after I left Grenoble. My involvement, tiny though it was, exposed me to life and death issues played out on the world stage. I wasn’t in Kansas anymore. I had tasted what it was like to be involved with something much bigger than myself, and somehow, I wanted that to be part of my future.