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We knew it was going to be a good trip as soon as we got to the check-in counter at JFK Airport and the clerk said, “This flight is overbooked.” She continued tapping away at her keyboard, avoiding eye contact with us as if to do so might cause her to spontaneously combust. Unfortunately for her, she couldn’t avoid us with her ears.
             “Oh, no,” my ride-or-die travel partner said. “We getting on this plane.” I can say with no fear of hyperbole that Aliyma is the coolest sista I have ever met. Originally from Philadelphia, tattooed and with locks to her shoulders (“Please don’t call them ‘dread’ locks,” she said to me once. “There’s nothing dreadful about my hair”), we’d met in jail…where she was a corrections officer and I was a mental health counselor. I can’t remember how we started hitting the road together, but each time we did, something absolutely ridiculous was bound to happen. From nearly getting kidnapped in Venice to getting T-boned in Hong Kong and ending up in a Chinese ER six hours before our flight was scheduled to take off. We knew this trip to Paris was certain to have its own moment of tomfoolery and we welcomed it.
             “Don’t worry,” the clerk said, chancing a glance in our direction. “You’re getting on the plane. But we may have to seat you separately.”
            Aliyma and I looked at each other and grunted, “umph,” at the same time.
            We were flying Air India to Paris, which struck me as odd while booking the trip, but that’s how Gate1Travel rolls. Every year they offered what Aliyma and I came to call “The Thanksgiving Special.” It was so damn cheap that only sentimentality would keep you from booking it. If you were willing to miss out on your auntie’s sweet potato pie, you could spend four days overseas somewhere, completely smashed in a bar full of locals trying to convey across the language barrier why you had to at least eat a turkey sandwich on that day.
            Working her magic with the keyboard, the Air India clerk managed to get us on the plane in seats one behind the other. Once we’d settled in, Aliyma and I were satisfied that at least we were on the aisle and could crane our heads around the seat to chat. We could live with that. But then the flight attendant appeared and offered the oddest apology I’ve ever received in my life.
             “I’m sorry,” she said with that flight attendant smile plastered across her face. “We need these seats and have to move you to first class.”
             “Oh damn,” I said with all the sarcasm I could muster. Aliyma shot out of her seat as if she’d been poked with a cattle prod and had her carry-on out of the overhead bin as soon as the flight attendant uttered “first.”They sat us in the first seats right behind the cockpit and then offered us champagne. Bottomless champagne. Oh, forgive them, Lord; they know not what they do. Just one hour over the Atlantic, Aliyma took to simply raising her glass in the air and calling out, “More champagne PLEASE.”
            Now, I guess I should tell you that I’m not your “normal” traveler. Yes, I see some sights so that I can go back and say that I’ve seen some sights. But let me put it this way, I’ve been to Paris twice now and I still haven’t visited the Louvre. Once a friend asked me, “Why do you mostly go to bars when you travel?” I answered, “Because that’s where the natives are.” I mean, I’m sure the Louvre is absolutely lovely, but lovelier still, in my opinion, are the people who work at the Louvre and take the subway to a local bar after work to unwind after dealing with tourists all day. Except for this tourist. They will definitely find this tourist at their local bar.
            How lucky I was to find a ride-or-die travel partner like Aliyma.  We were certainly of the same mind. All I can tell you is that in Paris we stayed in a small hotel somewhere near Gare Nord (it’s a miracle that I even remember Gare Nord). Upon arrival, we dropped our bags, shit, showered and shaved, and headed out into the Parisian night to see what we could see. Or rather, it wasn’t so much what we could see, but what we could hear that led us to a crowded bar with a live band. A band playing R&B classics with a French accent. Well! What choice did we have but to go in?
            Got some red wine and seated ourselves at the only space available, at the end of a long table in the back room. We immediately ran into an American expat. He’d been in France more than a decade. He looked like he’d been living on the hard side of the bohemian life with his pale skin wrinkled beyond his years. After asking how we’d found this bar, a question we get a lot in our travels, he gave us a handy piece of advice: “You’re never lost in Paris,” he said. “Just look up.”
            We danced and drank and laughed a whole lot because we had no idea what anyone was saying, but jetlag was kicking in so we tried to bid our new friends adieu. Let me tell you, these Parisians were having no part of adieu. Francois (not his real name, we never got his real name) dragged Aliyma back to the floor for one last dance while some unidentified Frenchman grabbed me by the back hem of my suede trench coat and kept me from exiting. I imagined myself in a Looney Tunes cartoon endlessly running in place and going nowhere.
            Seeing the situation, the bartender, a big burly man, leapt over the bar like he had to take such leaps on the regular and, grabbing my collar, yanked me free of my captor. He never let go, dragging me through the crowd until we found Aliyma being hugged-captive by Francois on the dance floor. Super Bartender Man shoved Francois aside and grabbed Aliyma under her arm. With me by the collar and Aliyma by the arm, I swear to you that he kicked his way through the crowd not caring who met his boot.
            I’m not too knowledgeable about the safety codes of Paris, but I’m fairly certain that having a drummer blocking the only entrance to an establishment violates some code. Since we’d entered the bar hours prior, the drummer had migrated to partially block the door with his bass drum. No glances were exchanged but somehow we knew what had to be done. Super Bartender Man had taken us as far as he could. He now shoved us towards the drummer, the only thing between us and not being in that bar anymore. I went first, took two running steps and jumped over that damn drum imagining my form to be on par with any Olympic hurdler. Aliyma hurdled right behind me.
             “Have people ever fought to keep us in a bar?” Aliyma asked me.
             “No girl,” I said. “This is a new one.”
            The next day, we took the expat’s advice and did a lot of “looking up.” I got lost in the loveliness of the Parisian subway system with its style. The Arts et Metiers metro station was particularly distracting with its bronzed walls. However, by looking up I could get myself oriented again. We made our way to the Eiffel Tower so that we could say that we’d seen it. We wandered around a few blocks saying to each other, “It’s supposed to be right around here somewhere.” Then we looked up and we were practically underneath the thing.
            It was while shopping – because I have to buy shoes and/or a watch every trip – that we were reminded, in a way, that it was Thanksgiving. Practicing her English and trying to talk me into a jacket that she was modeling, the sales assistant asked, “Where are you two from?” One of us answered the United States. “Yes, I know that,” the assistant said. “But where are you from?”
            Philadelphia flew out of our mouths at the same time but she still wasn’t satisfied. “I mean where is your family from? Before America?”
            Oh. That.
             “We don’t know,” I said.
             “Our family came as slaves,” Aliyma added. To drive the point across the language barrier, Aliyma repeated the word “slaves” several times and acted out being shackled at the wrists and ankles before shuffling around the store.
             “Oh! Horrible,” the sales assistant said in beautifully accented English. “Let’s not talk of it. Horrible. Horrible.”
            And like that, four hundred years of slavery was dismissed. I didn’t buy the jacket.
            In all our travels, Aliyma and I never put Africa on our list. Mostly because we’re bargain travelers. But for me it’s more than that. I want to go to Africa and I won’t go to any bars there, that’s for sure. Not at first anyway. I want to go when I know where my roots lie on the continent. I want to go with hopes that when I step from the plane, I’ll feel something. Something that tells me, “Yes, this is the place,” and I want to know in my bones that I have indeed come home.
            With DNA testing and genealogy tracing it would be quite easy nowadays to narrow down the continent of Africa to the spot where my ancestors last left its shores. But now fear keeps me from pursuing Africa. Fear of DNA testing companies keeping my biodata and having their way with it and fear of arriving in Africa and finding it as unwelcoming as my step-country America. I’m a stepchild of America. I don’t want to be a stepchild of Africa as well. Maybe I want the absent parent to continue being the perfect parent.
            Being reminded of our enslaved roots didn’t dampen our mood nearly as much as it did the sales assistant’s. Aliyma and I went on to have dinner at a small restaurant that evening near our hotel. It was November in Paris and definitely chilly at night which we didn’t mind at all. Our waiter was a pro among pros and practically applauded when I chose the rabbit dish.
            We were having a mighty fine time laughing about how friends back home had begged us to cancel our trip because, at that time, news reports showed Paris burning. Immigrants and first-generation Parisians were voicing their displeasure with the status quo using flames. But, what can I say, riots were hardly new to us. We didn’t pity the rioters because we identified with them. We were step-children of America, while they were step-children of France. If we encountered any of them, we’d probably throw up the Black Power fist and say, “Riot on, my brothers and sisters.”   One thing’s for sure, being Black in this situation had its advantages, rioters wouldn’t be throwing rocks at us. In any case, we found no destruction when we arrived, not even a burnt-out Peugeot.
            Our yuck-yucks were interrupted by a man at the next table.
             “Excuse me,” he said. He had an accent like his roots lay in Wakanda. He was dark, while Aliyma and I range from almond to toffee-colored, telling of the effect slavery has had on our skin. Aliyma and I, if DNA tested, are as likely to have family in Wales as in Wakanda.
             “Your family must be from Ghana,” the man said smiling so strongly that the apples of his cheeks lifted his glasses.
             “We don’t know,” I began to say but he went on.
             “I’m from Ghana and only people from Ghana talk like that. Listening to you talk I’m reminded of home.”
             “Talk like what?” Aliyma asked.
             “Mm-hmm,” he said. “Your friend says something and you answer ‘Mm-hmm.’ Only Ghanaian people speak this way.”
             “Doesn’t everyone say that?” I asked.
             “Not with the low timbre on the first syllable and the lilt at the end,” he said.
             “Mm-hmm,” Aliyma and I said in unison before laughing. 
            Once you notice it, you can’t un-notice it. I told my mother about this revelation when I returned home, and you know what she said?
             “Mm-hmm.” Then she laughed. “But I can’t stop saying it!”
             “Mm-hmm. I know Mom. And I notice that white people don’t do it.”
             “Huh,” she said.
            The mm-hmm is something I notice many Black folks inject in the conversation to let you know you’ve been heard and to keep telling the story. Depending on tone the mm-hmm can express surprise, agreement or disappointment. I suspect I’d have no problem with the language barrier at a bar in Accra. That knowledge makes me smile.
            If I was to take that DNA test and found that I lacked Ghanaian blood, I can tell you I’d be one disappointed sista. Ghana has become my mental homeland though I have nothing more to go on than a few mm-hmms spoken by a native son in a Parisian bistro. Our Ghanaian brother met us in a restaurant the next day where we ate dozens of freshly shucked oysters with seasonal wine and mm-hmm’ed our way through the afternoon.
            It was on our last grey day in town that we fell into an art district. One painting refused to be left behind and crossed back over the Atlantic with me. It was an abstract of three African women clothed in red dresses caught in the motion of strolling down the path. The title of the piece is “Entering the Village.” Mm-hmm, I couldn’t make that up. I’ll be entering that village one day and I hope it’s somewhere in Ghana.

© 2021 Dona E. Bowens

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