“Why do people want to adopt another culture?” Alice Kaplan, the French scholar in her memoir French Lessons, writes. “Because there’s something in their own they don’t like, that doesn’t name them.”
Why are those who are drawn to a culture outside of their own enticed? Is it indeed as Kaplan states, to seek something that is lacking in their own? Or is it mere curiosity and a fascination to learn? But if it is simply to learn, then why does one culture pique our interest more than another?
So many questions, and none of which I have an absolute answer for, but I do have an answer for myself, as to why I was drawn to the culture of the French. I would imagine that each individual will cite different reasons as to what drew them to a particular culture foreign to their own. Lauren Collins, in her soon to be released book When in French: Love in a Second Language disputes Kaplan’s claim as her coming to the language of French was more of seeking of why French was so divided and demanding of classifying seemingly everything. While I will dive into her memoir later here on the blog, you can read an excerpt of her book here in The New Yorker. But her distinct difference between Kaplan’s draw and Collins’ own makes it clear, there isn’t one reason people have a curiosity with the French culture. But I’d like to try to list a few reasons that many people, you and me included, proudly call ourselves Francophiles.
1.The air of mystery
Perhaps it is more stereotypical, but it has been my experience speaking with friends and acquaintances who live in either the United Kingdom or western Europe to keep much of your life private and only open up after extensive investment in a relationship or friendship. For all of its wonderful congeniality, my temperament is not suited for the open-book personality which tends to be my experience with Americans. Others would dismiss this as they are far more comfortable opening up to mere strangers, and this is absolutely their choice, but I suppose that is one significant reason the French fascinate me.
After diving into the history of the French and their tax system, I came to understand part of the reason for the tendency to not disclose much of their personal lives or comfort of living was that taxes would increase if the government simply presumed you were living well (The Bonjour Effect). Now that is no longer the case today, but as with so much in life, there is always a reason for a person, or in this case, a country’s behavior.
2. An appreciation for quality
From the revered profession of a waiter, to the artisanal crafts in bread making, cheese and pastry, just to name a few, careful attention and much respect is given to the every day food and interactions we experience each day. Not to mention the quality time to appreciate food, conversation and time with family and friends. Perhaps this is thanks to the socialized work schedule and power of the workers’ unions, or maybe the French have figured it out and we just need to pay attention: quality is better than quantity. You may not have more work hours clocked in to bring in more money, but is your life more content? Do you feel more in balance and at ease? Are you eating well instead of a lot? From art to food, to fashion to wine, quality over quantity is what immediately comes to mind when the way of living as the French do is mentioned.
3. Simple sophistication
After WWII and the German Occupation, France was demoralized and gutted. And this included the luxurious fashion of haute couture and prevalent café society that Paris had become known for up until 1939. In Dominique Veillon translated book Under the Occupation, the often unknown influence on fashion is shared in detail. Creativity was expressed as women began using what they had to cultivate their style, and of course there wasn’t an abundance of anything. Perhaps it is too general to believe that this idea of effortless chic came to be as the war came to a close, but it would make sense as labels didn’t matter, but looking well in one’s clothes, no matter who made them so long as they lasted and were versatile did.
4. An appreciation for beauty
Whether in paintings, sculpture, the opera, architecture, or a piece of literature, beauty is adored, protected more fervently (although there was that debacle with the Louvre in 1989 – the pyramid was completed), and overall offers an appreciation for history, craftsmanship and attention to thoughtful detail. Of course, everyone’s definition of beauty is their own, so perhaps my love for the Impressionists as well as the Romantic period is why Paris captures my eye, but the idea that new doesn’t always mean better and the idea of appreciation for the past has always pull me into the French culture further.
5. The food
I know I mentioned quality in #2, but I must repeat this idea of food, good food, satiating food. Yes, there are many cultures with deliciously wondrous food, but the food I love and the food that France offers is similar and so I don’t have to stretch too far out of my comfort zone. They say that in order to be successful at a new language, it is a good idea to choose a language that is similar to your own. Perhaps it is the same with food. My palate has always loved desserts, pies, pastries, meats and cheeses. The offerings, the plentiful offerings of these types of foods, no doubt captured my attention as a wide-eyed 21 year old and the spell has never been broken.
6. A slower pace
While I innately have the drive of an American (perhaps not innately, but none-the-less nurtured from an early age), I have always been fond of slowing down. Yes, I love to get my work done, and perhaps the reason I don’t tend to procrastinate is because I want to sit in quiet repose after all that is needed to be complete is indeed that and not have to worry about a thing. If I want to read, I will read. If I want to daydream, I will daydream. If I want to wander like a flâneuse, and just take joy and appreciation with wherever I am, even if it is to step into my mind, I want to give myself this gift. To not have to feel obligated to fill every moment with “something” has been my life’s goal. To go at just the right pace for leisure and productivity, pleasure and joy, challenge and ease. A slower pace demands we be at peace with ourselves and our life’s decisions, and when we are, this slower pace is one amazing gift we give ourselves.
During my first visit more than 15 years ago to the town of Angers, I couldn’t comprehend why shops would shut down for the lunch hour. I couldn’t understand why Sunday relegated the town to utter silence except for the birds and the breeze. But now I know why, and I appreciate it all the more. Yes, that is one significant reason I am drawn to France.
So yes, indeed I am looking for something I don’t find easily in my mother culture, but what I have found and share regularly on this blog is that we can cultivate the life that works for us no matter where we live. The gift of choice is ours. We can go along or we can get going creating a life that brings us peace and contentment. And if it is another culture that opens up to us our most truest selves, in this case, the French culture, we can absolutely tip our hat in appreciation. So to Marianne, France’s national symbol of liberty and reason, merci. Merci beaucoup.
~TSLL FRENCH WEEK posts so far in 2016:
~How to Be Chic with Fiona Ferris (podcast)