Monday, March 29, 2010

The Garden and The Game

People really, really, really love France. According to Wikipedia, while there are about 65 million citizens living in France, over 82 million people visited here in 2007. We have been four of the 80-odd million here this year, and during our ten months, we will have encouraged almost two dozen more Americans to make the trip to stay with us. I know our friends and family have come over mostly because they love us. But I can’t imagine we would have had so many guests had we decided to spend a year abroad somewhere less romantically ideal.

So I’ve been thinking. If we 82 million visitors all came at the same time, maybe like next week, since the weather's finally nice, we’d totally outnumber the French. And in that case, I think we might be able to take them.

I’m kidding. Mostly. But it’s easy to see why plenty of people -- particularly more acquisitive types – might begrudge the French their lovely home, and want its chateaux and villas for themselves. For big parts of France are like the Garden of Eden: cultivated, beautiful landscapes of incredible variety and largely unspoiled beauty.

But France has one crucial difference from the original Eden. This is a wholly human place, dedicated to the thoughtful pursuit of consistent pleasure and eternal satisfaction. It is as though, after their initial quarrel, Adam and Eve had expelled God from Paradise, rather than the other way around. Instead of hiding their nakedness and feeling eternally lousy about eating the apple, the French Adam and Eve set to work finding all sorts of ways to turn the fruit of knowledge, the art of sexual seduction, and the miracle of all those different kinds of yummy plants and animals into art forms of the highest order. And it probably wasn’t long before they had turned those fig leafs into their characteristically swank fashion.

The French don’t spend a lot of time denying themselves things, fretting about their sins, or making loud expressions of their piety and goodness. If they do go to Church, they are just as likely to be there for cultural reasons as for religious ones. And if they are religious, they certainly aren’t all up in your face about it.

Religion stays out of their politics, out of their schools. The French flag and the U.S. flag are both red, white, and blue, but "Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity" is decidedly different from "One Nation Under God." Not only can’t you wear a headscarf to school here, but you can’t even wear a little cross on a chain around your neck. God is certainly an important part of many people’s private lives, (he is known as Allah for five million or so.) He’s got a ton of terrific real estate scattered around the place, but He is hardly spoken of otherwise.

Instead of loudly organizing their lives around religion, and spending all their time convincing other people just how virtuous they are, French people spend their time figure out really great ways to enjoy their lives and to revel in the world of sensory experience. As many people have told us, about life in the south of France, the aim is to sustain a feeling of well being (bien-être) throughout each day. Care is taken to move slowly and carefully from one pleasant experience to another, to avoid the unhappy feeling of dropping off into the abyss of ennui – bother and annoyance. Most of France’s most famous intellectuals crowd the streets of Paris –but your average Provençal townsperson is a PhD of Pleasure, and could give lectures on the advanced art of managing one’s life to maximize happy leisure and minimize pain and suffering.

They also don’t waste any time being friendly to those outside their world, unless it is specifically part of their jobs. The cynical part of my brain is starting to wonder whether all that American friendliness I’ve been missing is just another way of convincing other people just how nice and virtuous and friendly we are. Because the French seem to have less than no interest in impressing others in that way.

They are, instead, wholly absorbed with enjoying the Eden they know: the world of their families, their friendships, their hobbies, their food, and their homes. Maybe we Americans are only friendly out of an insecurity born of having to choose from an endless variety of cultures and approaches to life: we seem to need constant positive feedback from and interaction with complete strangers to know that we and our choices are OK. French people just care about being as French as possible.

But the French tendency to revel in the world of sensory experience rather than to focus on how to “be good” should not be confused with badness. There is no satan-worship going on, very little gluttony, relatively no tendency towards wanton, inhuman cruelty and violence. On the contrary, it seems from my vantage point here that French people are rather nicely inclined to manage and take responsibility for themselves, and to expect to let others do the same.

Not being so focused on denial and sin also seems to cut down on their level of hypocrisy and the gluttonous pursuit of excess. When you’re not obsessed with “being good,” and haven’t confused your ethics with your diet, it’s a lot easier to avoid excess. If you’ve got yourself and your emotions under control, you’re a lot less inclined to flip out into fits of violent rage. Perhaps when you get right down to it, any overwhelming emotion, or insatiable hunger for things you don’t really need is just the flip side of pious self-denial.

So, aside from the God business, France has everything you would want in an unspoiled Eden: walled gardens, picturesque valleys, scenic medieval hilltowns, and soaring mountains. Grapes and olives grow just about everywhere, and you can pick your salad with a ski pole alongside the roads on your way home from work. Granted, if you’re in Paris you don’t get all the nature stuff, but you have the consoling pleasures of living in a paradise of culture and refinement.

So it’s clear to me why the tourists come here in hordes. And why French people tend to stay close to home on their own vacations. While they may have strong feelings about America, actually going there is much less interesting to them than coming here is for us.

What hasn’t been so clear to me is what divides the tourists (who so enjoy their week or two of Eden, pick up an Eiffel Tower figurine and a few sachets of lavender, then head home to get back to work and pay off their credit-card bills) from the ex-patriots who can’t seem to get themselves to leave.

And what’s been even less clear to me is what separates the two main kinds of ex-patriots. There those who love France, but hate the French, and won’t learn the language (not to generalize, but many of these folks appear to be Brits.) But then there are those who really love it here, nature to culture, soupe to noisettes. In this category go Gertrude Stein, Edith Wharton, Josephine Baker, and Nina Simone. Here are Julia Child and M.F.K. Fisher, American women whose autobiographies of their time in France have become touchstones for me as I’ve tried to find my own way.

So what makes one kind of person love France, but reject the French, and turns another kind of person into a contemporary Julia Child?

Like many of the questions I can’t stop asking, this one hits close to home. I’m not just a disinterested observer of the vagaries of the British in France; I’m also an American who can’t quite get with the program here myself, despite my best efforts and best intentions.

I’ve spent the last few months coming to grips with the fact that I don’t really have it in me to be as charmingly charmed as Julia. I can’t even blame this on the fact I have pesky kids holding me back, because M.F.K. Fisher did just fine with hers in tow. When I first got here, I mistook many of the things around me for similar versions of things I already knew. I thought France was like the U.S. in the 1970’s. Or I thought small-town France was just a grouchier version of my own small-town America. I thought this was all familiar enough, and with a little more practice, I’d get the hang of it all. However, as I have lived here longer, and French culture has proved only more puzzling rather than less, I’ve realized how little I really understand, and how hard it is to get inside of this culture rather than admiring it from afar. There is more to living here than learning to order meals and ask for directions in real French rather than tourist English.

Before coming here, I thought that living in New York had fit me to be a citizen of the world. I also imagined that growing up in a small town would give me clues about how to negotiate this one. But our lives here still often feel more puzzling than a tricolor Rubik’s Cube. The disorientation of living here (like the unsettled way I felt when I went to college, and then the time it took for me to adjust to living in Brooklyn) has forced me to admit that there are many, many things about life in this big world that I have yet to understand.

This little question about expats is probably just the tip of the iceberg of what I don’t get about this place. But it’s the one I’m stuck on just now. So in the next few blogs, I’m going to spin out a theory I have stolen from our college friend Hillary.

Hillary has lived and worked here in France for twenty years, all of her adult life, becoming fluent not only in French language, but also in French life and culture. She has done business here, made art here, found love here, and given birth to two most excellent French citizens.

Since we decided to move here, to become temporary expatriots ourselves, Hillary has become our mentor, one of our primary sources of down-and-dirty information. For example, she saved our life probably many times over by filling us in on the French traffic law that cars turning right at an intersection have the right of way over cars going straight through. This rule is further complicated by the fact that this is not the case if there is a stop sign at a given intersection. However, if you’re the car going straight, it’s not always possible to tell whether the would-be-right-turner has a stop sign or not.

I was baffled and irritated by all the cars zipping out in front of me, particularly at a very strangely angled intersection in St. Maximin, until I heard from Hillary how not to die and kill my family at the same time.

Then, when we took our first trip to Paris, back in the fall, she not only showed us the cool place to buy kids’ boots, but also gave us a safe harbor in which to be ourselves for a few easy hours. We shared several plates of charcuterie and peppered her with questions, curious about her life and about how we could make one here for ourselves.

On that visit, we met her three-year old red-headed daughter, Stella, who is truly a star in every way. Stella is a dream of a little girl, with soft red curls, a winning manner, and incredible charisma. At age three, she understands English perfectly (but, like a typical three-year-old, prefers to speak the language she hears most.) She speaks better and more correct French than any of us could dream to master. It was she who taught me that I should be saying a tidy and proper “oui,” pronounced with a puff of air through pursed lips: like “wheat” without the t. All this time I had been drawing out my “oui” in the Southern manner as “Waaaay,” which is the pronunciation equivalent of a Jersey Girl snapping her gum and saying “Yeah,” all the time.

Hillary has filled us in on the intricacies of where to smile and when, and how not to be offended when I don’t receive a smile I had expected. As I wrote more and more posts, she started to take on the role of cultural mentor, helping me through and cheering me on as I gradually learned the ropes.

Let’s just say that without Hillary guiding me from afar, this year might have been significantly more baffling and bizarre than it has been. And she guided with such love, really – never grudging us our weaknesses or laughing at our flaws behind her hand. She seemed to like us just as we were. This was an awfully welcome sensation, since we often felt so baffled by and excluded from the mysteries of French culture.

Hillary had her second child in December, perfect little Lucien, so we had to wait until he was a little bigger to have them down for a visit. We traded the usual mom emails about his sleeping habits and the terrors of sibling rivalry. And then, at long last, a week ago Friday, I took Leon the rental car to pick up Hillary and the kids at the TGV in Aix, to bring them for a little glimpse into the world we’ve pieced together here in the South.

They were eager for some time in the country, and for a glimpse of the warm sunshine of Provence. I was eager to see them all, and hopefully to provide a tiny sliver of hospitality and rural respite in gratitude for all those digital positive vibes I had been soaking up all year from afar.

But I guess I’m less of a hostess than I am an aggressive researcher. Poor Hillary wasn’t in the car ten minutes before I started quizzing her again. What is it that makes some people happy ex-pats, and turns others into miserable victims? How can so many people choose France as their adopted home, while others rant on about France as a haven for rude, small-minded snobbery? What is it that some people get, and others just eternally miss?

She had an answer for me, almost right away: “France is a game. There are rules, but no manual. People who like it here realize the game for what it is, and they like to play. For example, they like to spar with the waiters, seeing just how far they can press against his rudeness without being rude themselves. They like to figure things out, get things right.”

I have learned over this year to trust Hillary, so I took this statement as French Gospel right away. But the longer I have thought about it, the more I have become certain she is right: you have to be a good sport to be a happy ex-pat. During the rest of the ride, she taught me about game theory, and ever since then, I’ve been turning these ideas over in my mind. I’ve been thinking about the ex-pats I know and how they prove her point, giving it depth and texture.

So here’s my theory:

People love France because it is a secular Eden.

But not everybody likes the French, in part because the French are too busy enjoying their Eden to lay out 85 million personalized welcome mats.

To deeply appreciate the whole package – both France and the French, you’d better be like our friend Hillary: be a darn good sport, and love to play the game.

If I haven't lost you by now, stick with me as I spin this out, and try to explain.

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