Tuesday, May 25, 2010
From Obsession and Rejection to More Nuanced--and Deeper--Appreciation
This is the story of how I came, first, to see France as vastly superior to my own country and then, after a while, how I got over that bias and was able to appreciate my own country again, still loving France, loving both though seeing neither one as perfect. This post is all words. I just put that one image (an old one from last year of Sarah and one of her buds) at the top to lure you in. And I’m writing here about my experience and feelings and opinions, no one else’s.
Last night, by the time I could no longer keep my eyes open and focused, the moment when sleep overtook me after a long, full day, I had reached page 387 of Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy, a novel set in India shortly after Partition (the splitting off of Pakistan). The cast of characters accompanied me into dreams. And yet, I awoke this morning to a surge of Paris memories.
Paris is like New York, in that everyone who has ever been there and loved it in the past, before you got there, is sure that “then” it was much better than “now,” whenever “now is (never stationary, never the same river twice). Those people who got there long before you will sadly tell you it’s too late now, that you’ve missed the city at its best and richest—and I would quote from E.B. White’s Here Is New York, an American classic, but unfortunately I have no copy on hand at the moment, and online excerpts tend to focus on the city being now “destructible,” rather than all its visitors thinking they hit it at the best moment in time and everyone coming after them arriving too late, and anyway, that book is about New York, and it was Paris that stole my heart, as it had my father’s decades earlier. “You’ll never have the time I had there!” he exclaimed. Well, no, I could not hope for that. I would not be an American Army captain arriving on the scene to hear Edith Piaf sing on the glorious dawn after the Liberation of the City of Light from the long Nazi Occupation. But I didn’t want anyone else’s Paris, only to find my own.
Other people will tell you that Paris (again, the same things are said of New York City) is unfriendly to visitors. One person assured me I would have a terrible time in the spring of 1987 because “they hate Americans over there.” Many aspects of traveling alone disturbed my pre-flight peace of mind, but never that fear. “No,” I replied with confidence, “they will love me because I will be so happy to be there!”
To be there. Whether it is Paris, France, or the red canyons of the American West or anywhere in the world you can name, being there is nothing, absolutely nothing at all, like looking at pictures of the place or watching a movie set with the same scenes. When David and I went back together in the year 2000, the dinner we had one night with his English friend, Justin, and my French friend, Hélène, brought together three of the loves of my life: David, Paris, Helene. But I am getting ahead of my story....
Revenons à nos moutons. (I love that old French saying!) Back to 1987, that is. I was there, waking that first morning to pigeons cooing, fluttering past my bedroom window, to French voices speaking and singing (yes), to the distinctive clink of spoon against china echoing against the stone walls of the air shaft. Being there, I was surrounded not only by sights but also by sounds and by smells--no, call them perfumes, even that damp stone smell, even the diesel odor of heavy traffic. I couldn’t breathe in the air deeply enough. When the chestnut trees bloomed, my joy became so intense it was almost pain, but there was no question of “taking leave of my senses.” My senses were overloaded but continued to be greedy for more.
Hélène recognized herself in me, I think—this tendency we shared to excessive response (as some would see it).. Of my parents’ generation, both an only child and childless, separated for decades from her own artist husband (another thing we had in common at that time), my landlady looked out for me. “Take an umbrella!” she would say on a rainy day, urging hers on me. “Don’t waste your money on expensive wine. I buy it in bulk.” But there was so much more to her, so much more to our connection than that. One evening we were watching television together, and an old clip came on, Jacques Brel singing “Ne Me Quittes Pas.” We know the English lyrics as “If You Go Away,” but the French words are pleading, “Don’t leave me!” Abruptly, Hélène got up from the table, went to her room, closed the door and came out no more that evening. Had I said something wrong? No, she explained the next morning. She had been overcome by memory and emotion.
Over the years of our deepening friendship, during my visits and in letters, Hélène shared bits and pieces of her life with me, and across what should have been a generational and cultural gap we recognized each as what Anne Shirley (Anne of Green Gables) called “kindred spirits.” Hélène loved my love of Paris, too, so my forecast was borne out—I’m realizing this only today, for the first time, as I type the words: “They will love me because I will be so happy to be there,” I had said in Kalamazoo, and so it came to pass, surprisingly, with the woman from whom I rented my room on the rue de Vaugirard!
But the month, my first visit, came to an end, and I had to go home. I cried as the plane took off, feeling the pain of every mile that separated me from the place I had grown to love. Landing in Chicago, I recoiled upon hearing flat Midwestern voices again. Does this sound terrible? I’m being honest. I hadn’t wanted to come home and no longer felt “at home” in my own country.
It got worse. American coffee was insipid, bread soft and tasteless, supermarket peaches and avocados unripe, hard, bland. “It must be a relief to go to the grocery store where everything is in nice, clean packages,” commented a well-meaning relative. No, it was not, not at all. I wanted my bread unwrapped, still warm from the oven, tucked under my arm. I wanted every single piece of fruit, every vegetable, hand picked for me personally and handed to me to pop into my string bag. I wanted chunks of cheese—all kinds of wonderful cheese!--sliced off to match the space between my two hands held apart, and those chunks wrapped in paper and tied with string. I wanted the speed and breeze and smells and crowds of the Métro. I wanted the chestnut trees and Guignol and for people to call me “Madame” in respectful tones and to greet me with “Bonjour,” not “Hi.” In short, I wanted a French life, and instead found myself painfully cut off from that reality, imprisoned in America!
It took a while for these extremes of obsession and rejection to calm down. As I made trips across the Atlantic over succeeding years, gradually I came to see that France was no more a perfect country than was the United States and that U.S. life had some pretty wonderful things to offer. I still loved the growling male voices and the twittering female voices of Paris (provincial voices are different) but hated the way little girls were dressed, all frills and pink in little short skirts so they didn’t dare run in the playgrounds and risk falling down. I only received my B.A. at age 38 and thus began graduate school very late in life, so I found the French educational system, much less flexible and forgiving, distinctly inferior to the experience I was able to obtain in the U.S.: (Step out of line in France and, unless things have changed since, you’re out for life. England, by contrast, has institutionalized programs for “nontraditional” students, as we older ones dropping back in are called.) I’d adjusted to walking on French sidewalks without making eye contact but preferred the way people looked right at me, acknowledging my existence, in Chicago. I preferred some aspects of life in France to the American equivalent but found other American aspects more congenial than the French counterparts, politics and social programs and environmental awareness as well as obvious things like food and manners. I realize that some people would love one country and hate the other. I love both and am critical of both, a member of the “loyal opposition,” as dissident Catholics like to say of their relationship to Rome.
So that’s where I am now, neither idealizing nor demonizing France or the United States or any other country on earth. People are people. We are never perfect, so how can we expect to have perfect institutions? Every tribe, every nation, every government, every country neighborhood or small village or urban metropolis is an experiment in the organization of human society. Similarities are fascinating, contrasts equally so; large countries have problems not faced by small ones and vice versa. And on it goes, human imagination and tradition and geography and everything else cross-fertilizing to produce novel combinations on our precious, beautiful earth.
We dream, we leap, we hope to fly...we fall and crash and dust ourselves off and get up and try again. Such a short time each of us has here, but why should that be cause for despair? It is such a gift, life on earth, despite the sometimes destructive forces of nature and the less innocent destructive projects of man against man.
This post is dedicated to my friend S., as we forgive each other for pain caused by wounds unintentionally inflicted and go on with a richer understanding of ourselves and others. Thank you, S. The past two days of conversation have been intense, often painful, but exciting, too, as learning always is. Now the challenge for me will be to keep these lessons and insights in mind for the rest of my life.