Wednesday, December 2, 2009

This World is Weird

Habitual readers of this blog have already learned facts about Bill and me that are more embarrassing than what I am about to reveal. For example, you have learned, if you didn't know already, that we have tantrums, that we neglected to teach our children French before dragging them here and dumping them in the local school, and that we are still in recovery from a lifetime of utterly lackluster habits of entertaining guests.

But I wish I could explain the point I want to write about today without making this particularly embarrassing admission: one of our shared favorite movies is a Jackie Chan and Owen Wilson flick called Shanghai Noon.

In the film, Wilson (a dead ringer for Bill, even moreso than Judge Reinhold used to be) plays an inept Wild West outlaw who is always getting himself into scrapes from which Chan must rescue him with lots of cool kung fu acrobatics.

In one such moment, Wilson finds himself cornered and outnumbered by lawmen, and pulls out both of his guns to shoot his way out of the situation. Every single one of his several dozen bullets hits wild, causing him to comment, quietly and to nobody in particular: "These guns are weird."

Bill and I have always loved the subtle, throwaway nature of the line, indicating just how deeply the character misunderstands his own role in the whole business of aiming and then missing his intended targets.

We love how unaware Wilson's character is that blaming his tools brands him as a poor workman. We often quote this line to one another to signal moments when we suddenly recognize copelessness and/or lack of perspective, either in ourselves or in one other. Which is, because we are us, just about all the time.

For example, over the last few months, we've noticed that

"These measuring cups are weird," (when we measured weight as volume, and the pancake batter came out like cement.)

"These maps are weird," (when we misunderstood Liesel's directions and ended up lost in the wrong part of Nice.)

"This car is weird," (when we continually stall the Renault hairdryermobile on hills.)

"The road to the hospital is weird," (when we set out to the Draguignan E.R. in a panic with absolutely no idea how to get there.)

"This bisous thing is weird," (when we couldn't remember how many kisses to give people, or which side of the face to start kissing first.)

And then, again and again, "These children are weird." (Which, I have to admit, they sort of are, although since we are fully responsible for both their nature and their nurture, their weirdness is pretty much our fault.)

The food has been weird now and again, but really, whose idea was it to order stockfish soup, anyway? (Stockfish soup smells weirder than you could possibly imagine.)

And while most of the French people we have met have been perfectly lovely, sometimes they have been inexplicably weird, particularly when they (weirdly) don't seem to understand our French.

French itself is also weird, with all those reflexive verbs, and the adjectives following the nouns. What's with the whole obsession with masculine and feminine nouns? Why can't things that are so obviously "it" just stop being so girly or boyish?

When you get right down to it, this whole world feels weird to us, because we have chosen to live here on the edges of someone else's universe, rather than in the heart of places we know and understand. Because this new world is weird, we make mistakes all the time, from little faux-pas in the grocery store to forgetting to let the cars turn in from the right before zipping blithely past. We tutoyer when we should vousvoyer, and vice versa. We put the em-PHA-sis on the wrong syl-LA-ble, and then wonder why nobody brings us the nice rosé we imagine we just ordered. We just can't seem to get the guns to shoot straight.

France's history goes back thousands of years, building towards what it has become here in the moments we encounter it. Yet we can never quite tell: what parts of this place we are encountering right now are characteristically French? What are just random moments in time? What is a deep and lasting expression of tradition and comme il faut, and what is an aberration we happened to stumble across because somebody was having a bad day?

France keeps smacking us upside of our heads with its strangeness, its variability, its specific and compelling differences from things we have known before. The weather, the buildings, the politics, the food -- it's all just similar enough that you assume it won't be different, and then suddenly it's all so, well, foreign.

From our limited perspective, this always seems, at least at first, as though the nation has neglected to ask our opinions about how things should run. But then, soon enough, we recall that it's not like Sarkozy (or anybody else for that matter) invited us here as guests of the Republic.

So if anything, or anybody is weird, it's us. And that didn't start when we got on the plane in August. (Of course, if you ask Bill, he's more likely than I am to think that the guns really are weird.)

People who really live somewhere (have always lived there, with their families who have always lived there) fully understand the places they live, and rarely see their worlds as weird. Even when they really and truly are. A true denizen grows up enmeshed in a place, and understands the reasons behind its customs, its habits, its specific ways of being. He either fits (and knows why and how) or does not (and knows that it's all his fault for being out of step.)

Since leaving the tiny towns where we grew up and where everything made sense, Bill and I have always lived somewhat on the edge of worlds, not fully enmeshed in the history or culture or attitudes of any one particular place. Even in Park Slope, where we have lived the longest, we still don't feel particularly like insiders, always feeling for some reason or another, this borough is weird. We say this, even as we realize that it is not the world that is inexplicable, but we who do not (yet) fully understand its ways.

And the longer we are here, the more we find that things do make sense, and it is we who do not fit, rather than the other way around. I have enjoyed watching this slow evolution of our perspectives, particularly as we have seen how being somewhere so foreign is shaping our girls as they grow.

Today, as we were walking together around Frejus, a particularly lovely and not-at-all weird town, Abigail spoke up, having finally decided something that she needed to explain to us all.

"I know you guys really like France," she said. "But America is the best place for me. We all like different things. And I think I'm going to live in America when I grow up. And run a really excellent hotel for people and dogs. And be the President and also an acrobat."

You would think that our goal would be for the girls to really love France, to imbibe its air, its vowels and its cheeses so fully and happily that they become lifelong Francophiles, or at least major in French in college. But really, I think that our time here is more about shaping them as citizens of the world, and citizens of the United States, rather than turning them into permanent expats. (How sad would we be if, exactly as we have done to our own parents, our children moved thousands of miles away?)

If we are giving our children any particular gift with this weird stickout of a year, I hope that it is this: that they will see that living in America (or wherever they end up longterm) is not a given, but a more conscious sort of choice, among all of the other lovely ways and places to spend one's days and months and years on this planet.

I want them to experience the fact that when their guns feel weird, there are many possible explanations why. To see that while the world was not designed for their convenience, it is often wide open for them to learn endless new ways to drive, to hear, to smell, to eat, to see. To experience life.

1 comment:

  1. You are awesome. And this is an incredible gift to your children.