Thursday, March 5, 2009

Roger Cohen and Me

Roger Cohen, NYTimes Op-ed published March 4 2009

" I lived for about a decade, on and off, in France and later moved to the United States. Nobody in their right mind would give up the manifold sensual, aesthetic and gastronomic pleasures offered by French savoir-vivre for the unrelenting battlefield of American ambition were it not for one thing: possibility.

You know possibility when you breathe it. For an immigrant, it lies in the ease of American identity and the boundlessness of American horizons after the narrower confines of European nationhood and the stifling attentions of the European nanny state, which has often made it more attractive not to work than to work. High French unemployment was never much of a mystery.

Americans, at least in their imaginations, have always lived at the new frontier; French frontiers have not shifted much in centuries.

Churn is the American way. Companies are born, rise, fall and die. Others come along to replace them. The country’s remarkable capacity for innovation, for reinvention, is tied to its acceptance of failure. Or always has been. Without failure, the culture of risk fades. Without risk, creativity withers. Save the zombies and you sabotage the vital."

This is a very long quote, and I hope my borrowing it (carefully cited and sourced here above) won't get me into trouble. But, reading it just now stirred many feelings, and brought to the fore numerous discussions and arguments I've had over the years.

Living in France, in Provence in particular, has so many plusses. The weather, the history, the quality of the food, the abundance of local agriculture, the level of the general populace's education, the culture, both popular and high class. I can play my bassoon with a local chamber music group, learn tango from top level internationally schooled instructors, drink some of the best wine made in the world, enjoy Chinese films in Chinese (I read the subtitles), or Iranian for that matter, taste some of the most divine chocolate, revel in hikes amidst gorgeous wild flowers, with views of the blue-green (or wine red?) Sea. I can leap from cliffs for a refreshing swim, and wander in olive groves, climb over the ruins of a Roman aqueduct, or simply drink a cup of dark coffee in the shadow of the Pope's Palace.

But, yes, there are limitations to this world that are in stark contrast to the plethora of possibilities in the US. I've felt the class lines personally. One of the strange realizations I had early on still jars me today. I was, admittedly, a very naive young woman. Well-traveled, well educated yes. But hopelessly naive. When I married Erick Vedel, I married a man of many talents, food, sketching, repairing the home, history, iron-working, photography.. a man who loved learning, and was open to new ideas, sought knowledge and cultural exposure. A rich and interesting autodidact. But others didn't always see him this way. His paysan roots (which I often compared to those of Picasso, a boy of the Mediterranean too) were visible on his face, in his body type, in his language. So I extrapolated, and had a moment of epiphany on what the rise of Picasso meant to upscale French society, and the numerous women of class and wealth who were enamored of and and subsequently destroyed by him.

Our American clients adored and adore Erick. His gentleness, his generosity, his warmth, his knowledge of food history, and world music. These are the qualities we see, value and marvel at, and which in the US would have earned him much. But here.... it's not as easy to be well-respected if you've not the requisite degrees and school learning. The will to build and advance are not traditionally rewarded.

And yet, even with these experiences, I'm still enamored of this world, and I'm still here. Though clearly in French terms, I married out of my class -- Erick didn't mix with university professors here, who snubbed his unconventional approach. And I was raised by two Harvard Ph.Ds, in the suburbs of sophisticated NYC. But what a peculiar thing to say and feel? What is class? Is it still so important? But this is the old world, and many, if not most, of the old world behaviors and sentiments are still quite present.

I reveled in the election of Obama. I reveled in what it meant both symbolically and realistically. Someone, from a very simple background, raised by his mother and grandparents (who valued education very highly!), mixed-race, world traveled, and his wife, from a simple lower middle-class Chicago neighborhood; this person and his family can reach the highest office in the land through sheer work, willpower and belief. Nothing is unattainable if you work hard enough for it.

For this simple fact, much as I love living in Provence, I will always be American.

Unless otherwise noted, all materials on this blog are (c) 2009 by Madeleine Vedel

1 comment:

karenh said...

Hello Madeleleine,
I love your newsletter and am happy you now have a blog. You're such a good writer.

I have fond memories of my daughter and I staying at the B&B in Arles. Would love to come back to Provence sometime and have you as a guide!
Karen Holmes, Atlanta