Friday, November 29, 2013

Thanksgivings in Paris

The theme of the different world that we live in now than fifty years ago was theme of my CNN appearance (see below), and the nature of the world we lived in 75 years or so ago, before I was born, and how it differs from the present is a major theme of my forthcoming book, No End Save Victory: How FDR Led the Nation into War, which will appear in April.  It's an inexhaustible theme, and it pops up in the most unexpected ways and places--for instance, in newspaper column I read this morning, which reminded me of one published about 60 years ago.

This morning's column, "The Lament of the Expatriate," appears on the op-ed page of the New York Times.  It's written by Pamela Druckerman, a writer who has already written a book on the wisdom of French parenting techniques.   She presumably belongs to Generation X.  Although I didn't especially enjoy the column, I'm going to reproduce it in full for non-commercial use only. (Don't worry--if you don't like this one,. I'm sure you'll like the next one much more.)

An American Neurotic in Paris

PARIS — A few years back I took the ultimate expatriate plunge: I started doing psychotherapy in French. I figured that, as part of the deal, I’d get free one-on-one French lessons. And I hoped that if I revealed my innermost thoughts in French, I might finally feel like an ordinary Parisian — or at least like an ordinary Parisian neurotic.
I soon realized this was a doomed enterprise. Each week I’d manage to vaguely sketch out my feelings and describe the major characters in my life. But it was hard to free associate when I was worried about conjugating verbs correctly. Sometimes I’d just trail off, saying, “Never mind, everything’s fine.”
I’m aware that there are worse things to be than an American in Paris. You could be, for example, a Congolese in the Democratic Republic of Congo. But as I spend my 10th Thanksgiving here, permit me a moment of reflection. Because Thanksgiving prompts the question that expatriates everywhere face: Shouldn’t I be going home?
The Americans in Paris tend to fall into three categories. There are the fantasists — people nourished by Hemingway and Sartre, who are enthralled with the idea of living here. The moneyed version of this person lives as close as possible to the Eiffel Tower. The Bohemian version teaches English or tends bar, to finance his true vocation: being in France.
Then there are the denialists — often here for a spouse’s job — who cope with living in Paris by pretending they’re not in Paris. They tap into a parallel universe of Anglophone schools, babysitters and house painters, and get their French news from CNN.
Finally there are people like me, who study France and then describe it to the folks back home. We’re determined to have an “authentic” French experience. And yet, by mining every encounter for its anthropological significance, we keep our distance, too.
No matter how familiar Paris becomes, something always reminds me that I don’t belong. The other evening, as I chastised the lady who had cut in line at the supermarket, I realized she was grinning at me — amused by my accent. During conversations in French, I often have the sensation that someone is hitting my head. When surrounded by Parisians, I feel 40 percent fatter, and half as funny. Even my shrink eventually took pity and offered to do the sessions in English. (It turns out she’s fluent.)
The question of whether to stay is especially resonant for Americans in Paris, because many feel that they live here by accident. Not many foreigners move to Paris for their dream job. Many do it on a romantic whim. Expatriates often say that they came for six months, but ended up staying for 15 years. And no one is quite sure where the time went. It’s as if Paris is a vortex that lulls you with its hot croissants and grand boulevards. One morning, you wake up middle-aged — still speaking mediocre French.
I wasn’t sure how long I’d live here, but I did expect my stay to follow a certain expatriate narrative: You arrive; you struggle to understand the place; you finally crack the codes and are transformed; you triumphantly return home, with a halo of foreign wisdom and your stylish bilingual children in tow.
But 10 years on, I’ve gone way off that script. Those stylish children threaten to mutiny if I even mention the possibility of moving. I’ve got a French mortgage, and I’m on the French equivalent of the P.T.A. It’s like being a stranger in a very familiar land. I haven’t cracked the codes, but I no longer feel entirely out of sync: When the whole country goes into mourning after a beloved singer or actor dies, these days I actually know who the guy was.
Sometimes I yearn to be in a place where I don’t just know more or less what people are saying, but know exactly what they mean. But I’m no longer fully in sync with America either. Do people there really eat Cronuts, go on juice fasts and work at treadmill desks?
The thought of becoming an ordinary American again scares me. We expatriates don’t like to admit it, but being foreign makes us feel special. Just cooking pancakes on Sunday morning is an intercultural event. I imagine being back in the United States and falling in with a drone army of people who think and talk just like me — the same politics, the same references to summer camp and ’70s television.
But the fact is, those drones are my people. I end up gravitating toward them in Paris, too. The biggest lesson I’ve learned in 10 years is that I’m American to the core. It’s not just my urge to eat turkey in late November. It’s my certainty that I have an authentic self, which must be expressed. It’s being so averse to idleness that I multitask even when I’m having my head shrunk. And it’s my strange confidence that, whether I stay or go, everything will be fine.
Pamela Druckerman is the author of “Bringing Up Bébé: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting.” 

This article seems to me to recapitulate a number of the trends of our own time.  It is compulsively self-revealing and totally self-referential.  Ms. Druckerman assumes that the details of her life are critically important, not only to her, but to everyone else. More significantly, the editors of the Times op-ed page agree.  It's not clear what the point of her piece is supposed to be, other than sharing her own very specific feelings about her life and herself with the world.  
Now it so happens that, 61 years ago, a 25-year old American war veteran was living as an expatriate in Paris.  It turned out, four decades later when he published a most revealing autobiography, that he had a very troubled childhood and still had plenty of emotional problems of his own, but as men often did in those days, he found outlets for his problems, at that time, in his work.  He decided that Thanksgiving to write a piece about Americans in France as well, but his reads very differently--in large part because of the nature of his writing, but more than that, it seems to me, because he, after the fashion of his time, linked what he had to say to a broader story, specifically, the early history of the United States.  His name was Art Buchwald, and his column was about the problem of explaining Thanksgiving, a holiday without parallel in France, to the French.

One of our most important holidays is Thanksgiving Day, known in France as le Jour de Merci Donnant.

Le Jour de Merci Donnant was first started by a group of Pilgrims (Pélerins) who fled from l'Angleterre before the McCarran Act to found a colony in the New World (le Nouveau Monde) where they could shoot Indians (les Peaux-Rouges) and eat turkey (dinde) to their hearts' content.
They landed at a place called Plymouth (now a famous voiture Américaine) in a wooden sailing ship called the Mayflower (or Fleur de Mai) in 1620. But while the Pélerins were killing the dindes, the Peaux-Rouges were killing the Pélerins, and there were several hard winters ahead for both of them. The only way the Peaux-Rouges helped the Pélerins was when they taught them to grow corn (mais). The reason they did this was because they liked corn with their Pélerins.

In 1623, after another harsh year, the Pélerins' crops were so good that they decided to have a celebration and give thanks because more mais was raised by the Pélerins than Pélerins were killed by Peaux-Rouges.

Every year on le Jour de Merci Donnant, parents tell their children an amusing story about the first celebration.

It concerns a brave capitaine named Miles Standish (known in France as Kilomètres Deboutish) and a young, shy lieutenant named Jean Alden. Both of them were in love with a flower of Plymouth called Priscilla Mullens (no translation). The vieux capitaine said to the jeune lieutenant:

"Go to the damsel Priscilla (allez tres vite chez Priscilla), the loveliest maiden of Plymouth (la plus jolie demoiselle de Plymouth). Say that a blunt old captain, a man not of words but of action (un vieux Fanfan la Tulipe), offers his hand and his heart, the hand and heart of a soldier. Not in these words, you know, but this, in short, is my meaning.

"I am a maker of war (je suis un fabricant de la guerre) and not a maker of phrases. You, bred as a scholar (vous, qui êtes pain comme un étudiant), can say it in elegant language, such as you read in your books of the pleadings and wooings of lovers, such as you think best adapted to win the heart of the maiden."

Although Jean was fit to be tied (convenable à être emballi), friendship prevailed over love and he went to his duty. But instead of using elegant language, he blurted out his mission. Priscilla was muted with amazement and sorrow (rendue muette par l'étonnement et las tristesse).
At length she exclaimed, interrupting the ominous silence: "If the great captain of Plymouth is so very eager to wed me, why does he not come himself and take the trouble to woo me?" (Où est-il, le vieux Kilomètres? Pourquoi ne vient-il pas aupres de moi pour tenter sa chance?)
Jean said that Kilomètres Deboutish was very busy and didn't have time for those things. He staggered on, telling what a wonderful husband Kilomètres would make. Finally Priscilla arched her eyebrows and said in a tremulous voice, "Why don't you speak for yourself, Jean?" (Chacun a son gout.)

And so, on the fourth Thursday in November, American families sit down at a large table brimming with tasty dishes, and for the only time during the year eat better than the French do.
No one can deny that le Jour de Merci Donnant is a grande fête and no matter how well fed American families are, they never forget to give thanks to Kilomètres Deboutish, who made this great day possible.

        My apologies to those who never studied any French. . .Happy Thanksgiving to all. 

1 comment:

ed boyle said...

As a younger man in USA I had always enjoyed Buchwald's humour. Thanks for the reprint.