I have this thing about generalizations. Granted, I’m guilty on occasion of such, but... As I read my way through The Secret Life of France I am startled and frustrated by some of her chapters. Now, to clarify, this book is very well written by a woman who moved in circles I will never come close to. I am in admiration and I am aware of the quite privileged access she has had. (Had I married a Frenchman who shared my classes at Princeton, perhaps, but that's not how my story has played out). She is describing the habits and tendencies of a rarified circle of the very highly educated elite bourgeoisie of Paris. What she says does not hold true for my world in Provence of teachers, farmers, vintners, artisans, massage therapists, essential oil practitioners, artists and musicians.
The last two chapters I read have been strong on politics and the relationship of France (since WWII), to its British neighbor to the West and the Americans across the ocean. She has encountered (she being British, not American), tremendous nostalgia and respect for the British (all the while acknowledging that the sentiment is not returned from across the Channel), and outright scorn, annoyance and disdain for Americans.
Hmmmm. Can I say Thank Goodness I’ve not encountered this in the South? Nor has my mother (granted, a Ph.D in French literature) in her many years backing and forthing across the Atlantic to the city of Lights.
But, as she perpetuates the unfortunate opinion that all the French hate the Americans (NOT TRUE!) I am forced to consider my impression upon people here.
I’ve written before of the cultural confusion I feel when in the US – where I am received as hyper-verbal, WASPy, New England with a European gloss – thus I intimidate on occasion. And the concurrent reception I receive in France where it takes quite a bit of time and knowing me to be convinced of my cultured self (is it so hidden?) and rather deep education (all is respective). Mmmm Yes, my first impression in the hexagon shines through my surface self : bubbly, American accented English (though my French accent is well-received), optimistic and outgoing, as JP would say, my enthousiasme enfantin lends people to not take me seriously and to underestimate me.
A friend recently confirmed that when outsiders saw me (young, pretty, ebulliant) with Erick (older, more established, local) upon our marriage they assumed he had to have wooed me with security, wealth, comfort... Why else would I have stayed? No, he didn’t offer me this, but he did offer me a foil upon which I grew, expanded, developed and discovered my talents, previously unknown to myself. It was his passion for cooking and his region that gave me the impetus to create our business from scratch. He was also willing to do what he was skilled at to complete the picture – the physical renovations of the house, the shopping and cooking, the driving, etc.,
When we were in the midst of divorcing and I was advised by both my lawyer and JP that I really shouldn’t continue to work with him, I am convinced (now) that they assumed he had the where-withall to continue to support me and the children. That the business might collapse without my participation, that I was the one that brought our clients to us... this was an idea completely outside their scope of imagination. I was simply a pretty young thing from America, right? Much to my chagrin (and at that time low self-esteem) I followed their advice. This timed with the economic crisis brought near financial disaster on both our heads.
Over the past year Erick and I have knit our working relationship back together and we now help each other as we are able. A far better solution for both.
So, to conclude: that yes, if Americans are sweepingly (and ignorantly) considered to often be uncultured and less civilized than their European counterparts (particularly by a class of individuals that truly revel in criticizing and judging others) ... I do suffer occasionally from this stereotype. But, not for long. Where people have open minds and the desire to learn, discuss, exchange, snap judgements can be altered.
Curiously, I more often encounter a certain level of cynicism towards the English... but then, I’m American and no doubt our French hosts occasionally play games with the suspected rivalry of the Brits and their former colonists. All is fair game for the gullible...