Thursday, August 20, 2009

Where do I belong? -- yet another moment of belly-button gazing

Earlier this year I made a list of what has become French about me, and what is still American. The list was quickly tossed off, not entirely grammatically consistent, and well, more amusing than anything else.

After my month in the US -- the longest stretch of time I've spent back there since I moved to France in 1995 -- I'm musing yet again -- but I promise, this is the last time for a while. My desire now is to be where I am, and simply live day to day, with projects in the offing, granted, but still: Be here now.

I give up on wondering where I fit in. I'm an odd-ball with a collection of cultural experiences behind me, so, small-town girl and member of an established group/click I will never be. But that aside, how much did I learn? how much is simply me? how much is culturally and regionally dictated? I once declared that I preferred getting my au pairs from the Mid-West or New England -- sweet-natured, with a good work-ethic. I also reassure visitors that the Provençaux are sincerely welcoming and are thrilled when you make an effort to speak French -- as so many do not speak English (at least in the small towns, and Arles -- the English speakers congregate in St. Rémy de Provence, Avignon, and the cellars of Châteauneuf-du-Pape). So yes, I'm guilty of type-casting, and thankfully, I've accepted (humbly I assure you) being proved wrong a number of times. However, these ideas and regional codes do yet linger.

The United States is many countries. I repeat this ad infinitum to my French friends. Maine is not Texas, Oregon is not Mississippi, the coasts are different from the center. We have so many cultures in our very large country rubbing elbows side by side, and/or avoiding each other. However, in most cases, we manage to mix and accept each other amongst our numerous sub-groups. I love to point out that being from so many cultures, we have fewer judgmental reflexes, but wait for the person before us to show us his/her heart. What is rude in one culture is accepted in another, so best not to decide quickly, but allow the time necessary for a person to present his/her true self.

A friend currently living in Chicago and I have been exchanging comments about the worlds we prefer -- relatively hip, culturally curious, organically-minded, conversant with foreign countries, liberal politically, well-read, in movement be it dance, yoga, biking, hiking, exploring --and the worlds we tend to keep a bit of distance from (but which can often surprise us -- just have a car accident in Northern Wisconsin, as I once did, and you'll see... those good samaritans truly do stop to help anyone in need!) -- strongly religious, strongly right-wing, less curious about other worlds and cultures, abundant consumers of fast food and lowest-denomination media.

The United States harbors all of us, and graciously in most cases. But so do other countries. France has its share of the former and the latter, and of new immigrants and their many efforts at adapting to each other -- so I'm not going to boast of French superior tolerance and culture here, not to worry. What I've come to realize after living in multiple cultures for a serious length of time (Japan for one year, the US for 27 years, France for 15 years) is that each has its virtues and vices, and it is a choice of which level of imperfection we feel most at home in, or rather, which we choose.

My week of visiting the Vauvert Fête Votive had me mingling with the less-traveled, traditionalist, with deep local roots, and conservative (often rounder and a bit over-weight) part of town. It was fine, a bit different for me. All whom I met were gracious and pleasant to me, but no, I didn't converse much, I simply enjoyed my Perrier and watched the spectacle. I remember an evening last spring we went from a gathering at the Mairie (town hall, currently with a conservative mayor) over to the Cultural Arts Center (very left-wing/liberal -- and a hub of neo-Vauverdois, i.e. those who've moved here in their own lifetimes). We went from a room of hair-sprayed, poofed, artificially blond or red or black haired women, generally with a thick application of make-up (something I observe with wonder and curiosity as I just can't do the same) often a bit thick in the middle, sturdy, beside their booming, barrel-chested men dressed in red Provence-designed shirts, to a gathering of soft-spoken, nearly wispy, draped-linen and flowy scarf-attired, naturally gray and minimally made-up folk, who yes, did but rarely speak with the local accent. The vocal traditionalists and the liberal, frequently intellectual, outsiders. It was a strange moment in time. Where the twain ne'er shall meet.

This summer brought up many issues for me. With health insurance and health care the topic of discussion of the day, the public option in danger, and the general price of a doctor's visit 3 to 5 times what I pay here in France... I worry that I wouldn't be able to afford moving back to the US. However, in general I remind myself, once you have a job, you can earn more in the US than in France, or at least I should with a graduate degree, years of experience, a few languages under my belt, etc., and so, paying more for a doctor's visit is feasible where it just isn't counted into the budget in France.

I thought about the availability of fresh farm produce: the twelve month schedule of Provence, with organic farms and markets within very easy driving distance of my home, and a choice of three raw milk dairies, local fish mongers, and more vs. a six month winter in Northern Michigan, and a very short growing season of perhaps four months at tops? Silly as it may seem, I glory in the arrival of my early spring, my blooming roses, my wisteria and Japanese quince. I love the months of April and May in Provence... A huge wave of nostalgia washed over me as I contemplated that I'd enjoyed three months of good weather this spring, and my dear friends in Northern Michigan were only just getting a bit when I arrived early July.

But I also see the closed and frustrating aspects of France -- starting a business here is possible, but oopf! the paperwork, legwork, and sheer lack of encouragement! Compare that with the open, encouraging spirit of the US -- and in particular that special region up North. There is no comparison, though the French are definitely making headway. I see opportunities for what I know and can do in the US that I just don't see here. It would be a huge change, and not to be undertaken lightly, but...

But back to personality quirks. Am I simply too snippy and edgy to be in the Mid-west? And do I attribute that to living in Europe where observing peoples' diverse backgrounds, discussing politics, and weighing issues is commonplace? Or to having grown up in NY amidst the movement and intellectual spin of the East Coast? Can I become super-nice (and speak more slowly) like so many of the people I encountered this summer? I did pretty well in Seattle, a famously gentle and reservedly friendly city, and I even learned to drop my 'ly's in speech, just like the locals. So, with time...

I'm actually a very good friend to those around me. You can count on me. I generally say yes and help out however I might. I love kids, nourishing others, helping with and sharing projects, giving people a hand, laughing together (at no one's expense) and simply being with others. But yes, I permit myself to observe -- out loud. And that can contribute to open-mouth-insert-foot disease and its consequent misunderstandings in any culture.

The question(s) are as yet still up in the air.


Anonymous said...

Interesting observations. Funny I think you fit in more than you think and you seem to instinctually understand one of the universal elements about cultures... The FOOD!

Another thing you probably wouldn't have mentioned here but I have definitely seen in you is: No matter where you are located, your ability to make people feel welcome is unparalleled. Melinda and I had an amazing time with you in France last October and we give you all the credit for that.

So, either way, if it's Michigan or Provence you have a talent that many don't have. Maybe it's what you bring to those palaces that make them special in a way -- Not just what is already there.



samantha said...

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Madeleine Vedel said...

Thanks Kenchy! you two were marvelous guests, so hosting you was easy. I'm almost always happy, yet a constant questioner. Fated to be? However, Monday I go make goat cheese -- yippee!