Friday, February 12, 2010

Why Choose France?

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?


Gillian said...

IAlthough I visit France as regularly as i can make it, I haven't had the pleasure of sitting around a dinner table night after night, nibbling and talking as you describe, in recent years, but I remember it well and it is a marvellous feature of French culture, and one of the reasons I am seriously considering a move to France. Initially, for part of the year. The school system, however, is one I've been warned about by ex pats, that, far from encouraging individuality and creativity, it runs along certain grooves of the chacque un pour son metier variety and that maths has become the pinnacle of French education rather than intellectualism and creativity. I've held off moving to France for that reason, my children now have two more years of education here in Ireland which, while being far from perfect, I eventually decided would give them the best options for expressing and discovering themselves. Soon they'll be of age and can make their own decision regarding the country of their choice. Should I decide to live in France, I look forward to long meals discussing life, the universe, and everything with them, and French friends late into the evening.

Madeleine Vedel said...

Ah you have definitely hit the button on the head. This same friend who went to Australia felt the same way about the French system. But, she was then quite disappointed by the lack of expectations in Aus. Nothing is perfect! I've put my kids in the Steiner, and am on the one hand delighted, and on the other frustrated that they're not pushing my elder son hard enough -- I need to remind him that settling for okay, and the minimum is just not going to take him very far. His teacher's simply content that he gets his homework done! t'is a struggle to find the right education for our kids, hm?

Nathalie H.D. said...

Re your comment above - Oh yes Madeleine it's a struggle. I am yet to find an education system that I am completely comfortable with .

Regarding the rest of your post, well you know how I feel, you expressed it clearly ;-)

When I lived in Australia, I joined a Toastmasters group. I enjoyed the stimulation tremendously - and my fourth speech into the programme was about "sex, politics and religion" - all about why these topics should not be banned from conversation but encouraged !!!
My Australian audience actually responded quite positively to it, denying that these topics were taboo in OZ... Having said that, I've never heard Australians discussing religion. Politics yes, with like-minded friends. Sex no, apart from girls-only confidences.

Madeleine Vedel said...

Nathalie, I would love to read your speech, I don't suppose you've a version of it somewhere on your computer? or did you just wing it and express your thoughts in that marvelously organized way that one is taught in the French school system? Public speaking is a far wider achievement in France than the US -- at least clearly organized thoughts expressed verbally, leading to easy note-taking... with relatively few ums and euhs. bisous! - madeleine

Gillian said...

Have just finished reading The Secret Life of France by Lucy Wadham, an English woman who married and recently divorced a French man. Having lived in France for 25 years, raised their children in the French system and worked as a journalist - she reflects on her love/hate relationship with her adopted country in a thought provoking and enlightening enquiry into the Anglo/French/American relations and cultures.

Madeleine Vedel said...

Hm, thank you Gillian, I love reading books like that -- I think I've read most of the others out there! Thank you for the suggestion. I will go and take a look. I wonder if she treats the subjects I do???