Saturday, April 18, 2009

Deep Roots or a Tumbleweed?

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

What is it that keeps one person grounded, rooted in their local village, living out a life within view of their place of birth? And what is it, conversely, that sends another to the opposite ends of the earth, restless, eager, looking over and beyond the next hill? How did I end up living in so many cities (Kobe, Seattle, Paris, Arles, Avignon, New Rochelle, Princeton), and practicing so many professions? What was it that pushed a friend and colleague to build a boat, sail the seven seas, settle in Tahiti, then come back to France, renovate a barge, sell it, and set off yet again, this time to Australia for seven years? She's back in France now... but like myself, how rooted will she allow herself to become, or not? Some might say we're running away. But no, we did not flee failed love-affairs, or unhappy childhoods. Though for myself, I confess love can be the hook which decides the destination. She, I believe, like myself, has in her a need to conquer new lands, to test her adaptability and strength by learning new mores and languages. Once successful, there is an urge to move on to a new destination. It is not failure that sends us on our way, but more often, success and an accompanying restlessness.

In my Provençale life I've surrounded myself with artisans and farmers, individuals who chose their professions early, mastered them, and then settled into their activity and their village for the rest of their lives. In many cases, these are people taking over from their fathers, or their mothers and practicing a profession transfered to them from precedent generations. Roots, tradition, expectations, familiar rhythms. These have weighed heavily in their choices, their life's path. The piece of earth that they own, and in some cases where they were born, roots them. But also the mastery of an art and their position socially in their town. They are known, respected, accepted integrally as part of the world they live in. When you are the baker of Maillane, that is what you are. Or the organic winemaker up the hill, or the potter, or the chic chocolatier. You have a reputation, a role to play, you are a puzzle piece that lacking, would affect all who live in your sphere.

A classic attraction of opposites?

Somewhere, somehow, I chose to be outside, other, different. I conclude this, as why else would I have settled in a foreign land where I shall always be told "vous avez un petit accent." or "mais, vous n'êtes pas d'ici." Certainly, a WASP from NY would simply have blended in in a Manhattan bank, or a university faculty meeting, or in the marketing department of Ralph Lauren, or as a housewife in Connecticut. But I didn't reach for any of these possibilities. I chose to live in a land (for a year) where I towered over all and made everyone laugh with my wild hand gestures and creative use of their language (Japan). Then I went flying off to Paris and from there began my life as an expatriée for good, in a land where my optimism and enthusiasm are seen with indulgence as signs of my great naïveté. And where my freckles, height and blondish hair are visual clues to my foreignness.

I am far from alone. Many have come to Provence to settle, and whether you are from Paris or from Tokyo, you are considered an outsider by the locals. So, I cannot pretend that what I live is as disorienting say, as the daily existence of a young American growing up with his missionary parents in a tiny village in Hokkaido. However, I have had the regular jolt and daily reminder of adapting my cultural education to the local standards: the loudness of my voice to the softer French, my driving style to the constantly passing two lanes of the French national roads, a tendency to rush a quick errand to the necessity of taking my time. I've enjoyed the challenge, but I've also accepted that I shall forever not blend in. A curious fact. I simply stand out like a sore thumb, in particular when I speak to my children in public, or tell Filou to sit, or even when I conclude a purchase in a shop and they hear my accent.

With time, I've become accepted as the individual I am. I don't think my closest friends think of me as their American friend anymore, I'm simply Madeleine to them. They've accepted my contradictions, my energy, my way of being.

If I stay here, and my children are raised here. Will they be "normal" or at least considered French? Or have I gifted them a bi-cultural existence along with their lingual proficiency? Will they be tempted to travel far and wide? or feel rooted as their father is, and as so many are in Provence. Many, including my vintner and their father sincerely believe they live in the most beautiful place in the world, to which many (myself included) have flocked. Thus why would they ever want to live elsewhere? Yes, paychecks are small locally, yes, there's very little mobility in the job market... so? Life is made of much more than a career, right? Family nearby, traditions, roots, familiar rhythms, not to mention the mountains, the beaches, the markets, the food, the culture.

Will my children be children of the world? or settle here. Will they want to explore their American side, be educated on the other side of the Atlantic and perhaps work there, or will they feel very French and want to stay put? The friend who spent time in Tahiti and Australia was followed back to France by two daughters, but not by her son. My cousin who married and raised her boys in England left them behind when she returned to her home-town in Massachusetts. And yet others can stay happily home and watch their children travel to the distant ends of the earth, settling in London, Tokyo, Berlin or Florence.

It takes all to make a world. But how interesting to have such different impulses in the hearts of our beings. And those of us who remain outsiders wherever we are, where in the end shall we land? Shall we graft onto others' roots? Shall we share the lift of our wings to carry others in our wake? Is it reasonable for a flighty, restless, traveling woman to be with a firmly rooted paysan?

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