Man is an animal suspended in webs of significance that he himself has spun...

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Fairy Tales

The point of art is not to give you what you already feel comfortable with; that’s reporting, not art, that's TV, not art, that’s magaziney art, not art. Art gives you so personal an interpretation that it compels you to say, “This here is more real than what I know is really out there."
André Aciman
A long time ago I stopped reading books written by my compatriots or their close cousins about moving to and living in France.  There came a point in my life here when I found that the disconnect between what they were describing and what I was experiencing was enormous.  We seemed to have physically moved to the same geographical location but they seemed to be mentally in another world.

In their world there was always enough money, they lived in lovely houses in the South or plush apartments in Paris, their children were effortlessly bi-lingual, and the French were this adorable tribe with quaint and exotic customs that were an endless source of amusement (not to mention new material for books and articles). Misunderstandings, problems adapting, learning the language and the like were brushed off as mere bumps on the road.  They made it sound so romantic.  And I would finish some of these books feeling as though there was something really wrong with me. Why am I so ambivalent?  Why do I have these moments of loss and despair?  Why am I having such a hard time when all of these other people seemed to have effortlessly segued into a fabulous life here?

It took me some time to understand that these books are Disney-style fairy tales.  Cinderella stories with happy endings written for Americans or Australians or Brits that describe France in a way that conforms to certain positives stereotypes of the French and bucolic myths about life here. People want to read (and will pay for) stories that feed their fantasies about selling everything, dropping out of the rat race, getting on an airplane with a backpack, and writing a great novel in a bistro in Paris or restoring a French farmhouse in Normandy.   

Now, I am not calling these people liars, nor am I accusing the people who devour their books of being ignorant or misguided.  What I am saying is that these books are not the entire story and it's worth looking under and around them because there you will find incredible complex stories about courageous human beings.  These are people have experienced loss, grief, poverty and even madness in the Hexagone  - a whole host of rich experiences that are difficult to talk about:  broken relationships, illness, business failure, bankruptcy, mental institutions and even prisons.  All hundreds, or sometimes thousands, of miles away from the place they used to call "home."  

Yes, moving to France or any other country does not mean that the normal rules of life cease to apply.  Things happen and they are not always good.  The added dimension, of course, is that these things are happening in another language and another culture so far away from family and friends.  Not so long ago I sat in a restaurant with another foreign woman I have known for years and we cried together over her broken marriage, her children who do not speak their mother's language or know her culture, her aging parents back in the home country and many other sources of pain.  She is one of the strongest, most competent, well integrated women I have had the pleasure to know but the sheer loneliness was almost too much to bear.  Courage is too small a word to use to describe how she survived.

Another friend very recently started to tell her story in a blog called Reconstructions.  Read the following posts:  Broken, A Bipolar Drunk in the Streets (and she is talking about the streets of Paris), Wedding Bells and Water on a Rock.  

Experiences like these are not confined to Americans or Brits who come to France.  I've met French and other nationalities who privately tell similar tales about their experiences in the U.S., Japan, Brazil and many other countries.  When it all goes wrong, cultural differences and distance make every experience unique, but the underlying emotions are so very much alike.  Despair is universal.

I would never tell anyone (child or adult) to stop reading fairy tales about France with happy endings.  On the contrary, I now have enough distance to be able to say, "Enjoy!"  They are not Art in Aciman's sense of the term but sometimes we all need to feed our dreams and find comfort where we can.  

What I am suggesting is that there are darkerricher and more complex tales to be explored (perhaps even published if anyone dared do so).  I'd like to see some of the uncomfortable tales told, not in order to discourage people or to find material to denigrate the Other, but as inspiration, a more nuanced view of "the people who move around" and a glimpse of what is going on inside their heads as they experience the incredible dissonance of trying to cope with life on life's terms in another land.

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