On my previous blog, following one of the numerous posts where I was griping about my French Landlords From Hell, French dogs’ French poop on French sidewalks, and French arrogance, someone asked me a question:
“If all you really do is complain about France and hate it so much, why do you live there?”
I was dumbfounded. I don’t hate France and I don’t hate French people (I do hate the omnipresent French Dog Poop, however). I love France with some weird sort of affection. It all started when I was 14 and went to Paris (or, more specifically, the infamous Parisian suburb of St Denis) for a student exchange. I lived with a lovely French couple with two daughters and in spite of my fledgling French (or perhaps because of it), they showered me with affection, gifts and compliments. The lady even told my teacher that they had been lucky enough to get the nicest and prettiest student as a guest. I’m not sure how she came to either conclusion, given how I looked at the time (let’s just say that was the time before contacts, during extended orthodontic treatment, and some pretty awful fashion choices) and my level of French was fairly basic (when I finally succeeded in somehow conveying, in a low voice and embarrassed manner, that I didn’t want to go swimming because I had bad pains, you know what kind, she cried out joyously and announced to her whole family: “Our little friend is a woman!” as if we were going to celebrate it by one of those newfangled rituals with hand-holding and a recounting of ‘my first period’ tales. At least, I will never forget the French word for period).
The family was lovely. They showed my wide-eyed teenage self the wonders of Paris – the Louvre, the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame, the riverbanks of the Seine, Sacre-Coeur, or finally the National Stadium in St. Denis (this was shortly after France beat Brazil to win the World Cup in 1998, so no laughing matter!). They gave me a taste of their daily life: the homework, the traffic jams and the aggressive youths in sweatpants in St Denis, the salads with a vinaigrette made of hard-boiled eggs (I’ve tried since to duplicate the magic, but to no avail).
They also lived out, in some ways, the stereotype of ‘what the French are like’. They ate delicious meals with mysterious contents at their very elegant friends’ house (checking my dictionary one day after returning from a sumptuous feast, I realized I had just eaten a partridge!) The little girl, when she needed to use a bathroom that was not available in the artistic streets of Montmartre, simply hid behind a car and peed in the street. They were all very surprised at my taking daily showers (you know the term: “French shower”?). They, in all their innocence, also had no compunctions about walking around the house naked. I found this out, somewhat shockingly, on my first night there, when I rounded a corner to find myself face to face with the man of the house in all his glory.
My whole relationship with France as a country, concept, entity, has been like this – overwhelmingly positive, but with enough surprises to keep me in a state of constant, wide-eyed wonder – whether it be awe at the commonplace beauty in small, forgotten villages in the French countryside, or surprise at a kind of behavior I’d never met with before. This state of wonder has been sustained through 3 summers spent in France, a semester as an exchange student in Montpellier, numerous weekend trips and finally 15 months spent interning and working in Lyon.
France inspires me.
After all, if I lived elsewhere, what would I ever blog about?