Beyond the food and wine and the weather... why choose France? What is the lure of this European country that so stands apart from others? Why have I and so many visited and then settled here. Why have French ex-pats living in the new world returned?
A dear friend came to dinner the other day and expressed quite eloquently why she chose to return to the country of her birth. She had been living in comfort in Australia, enjoying the great weather, the super friendly people, the beach a hop away, tennis daily... She'd built a business there, had an income... but when the choice needed to be made she returned to France.
Like myself, the education of her children, both social and academic, is too important to be left to chance or to others. For the time that they are her responsibility, it is a main factor in where and how she lives.
And so as we and friends were conversing around the fire, a lovely glass of wine in hand, nibblies on the table between us, she let drop into conversation the following lines:
Je tiens à une culture du débat; à une culture de l'intellecte; à une culture d'exigeance.
She returned to France to secure for her children the education, both social and academic, that she felt would best prepare them to live their lives -- wherever they may choose to live in the future. And here, in France, they would be encouraged to express themselves, to argue, to debate, to have opinions. They would be in a world that demands that they push themselves academically to succeed, to not settle for alright or okay.
As a child of academically advanced parents, living just outside New York, I was certainly pushed in my studies, encouraged and driven. So this is a value that I carry in me from my own culture and family and I do my best to convey it to my offspring. However, the culture of debate, of discussion, of arriving at your opinions through heated arguments... this is something I have cultivated since I arrived on French soil. I do believe I was more willing to be bland when I was younger. Certainly I was politically apathetic and rather horrifyingly ignorant. "I don't know" and "whatever" were more common to my vocabulary than "I believe" and "I insist."
Upon my arrival in France it was soon quite clear that the French are aware of and informed about American politics. They have opinions and express them. And if before them I was less knowledgeable than they about my own country and its recent history... Well, suffice to say that I am proud enough to inform myself and remedy my ignorance when faced with such a situation. And so, I read, I learn, I think, I care and I express myself.
Would I have done so to the same extent had I stayed in the US? I just don't know. To a certain extent no doubt. The US has lived through very interesting times (to quote Chuang tzu if I'm not mistaken) in the past two decades. I can't deny being a person who cares and who reads the NYTimes since high school. However, it wasn't till I lived in France that I jumped from the Arts and Leisure section to the Opinions and Editorials...
That France and the French in general prize the intellect. Yes, I appreciate this. The most daily evidence of this social value is the art of conversation. Witty, sensitive, attuned to others, liberally sprinkled with references to politics, literature, cinema, history, song, public radio debates...
Still in operation here is the carefully designed table and social get-together. When invited to my friend's wedding years ago, we were just two amongst over a hundred, but it was clear that the table placements had been carefully thought through and we were with individuals we had much in common with, and with whom we were able to enjoy a marvelous evening of varied subjects.
The conversation is a living entity to be enlivened, encouraged, spread throughout the table. Monologues are discouraged. Sensivity to your neighbor is prized, but the forcefully expressed opinions of one who's drunk a bit much are not undesirable.
As I often told my French language students: the French will not ask you personal questions, however, they do love discussing sex, religion and politics. These being traditionally taboo at the WASP tables of my youth, I find this unceasingly entertaining when I am proven to have spoken truly again and again and again. Unfailingly, one of these directions (or all three) will be the chosen spark for a dinner table discussion. These do have the virtue of not excluding others, as in general, we do all have opinions on them that could be expressed. (A tête à tête is another matter). You can thus understand perhaps, why we sit from 8pm till Midnight over the many courses, wines, and coffee, perhaps topped off with a cognac. When pursuing subjects of this nature, a simple hour just isn't enough.
And so, we are back to why one would choose to live in France. It all converges at the dinner table. And, if we follow that thought to its natural extension, there's sense in the family dinner sans TV, with multiple courses, shared by all. But I do believe I've already gone into this... No?