I wrote this article on the 4th of July, 2009 during what was to be my first and last year in France and decided it was a good day to reprint it. It's amazing to me that this is my 5th Independence Day as a resident of France. Apparently the coffee klatch is not over! Today, we watched the 6th leg of the Tour de France depart from Aix en Provence and it's an exciting day. I thanked all the French people around me for organizing such a fun party just for us Americans. And tonight I'm making burgers on the grill for a few of us expats, who, though we've chosen to leave our country for various reasons, still consider her number one in our hearts. Happy Independence Day Americans. And as my cousin Joe reminded me, the French were instrumental in our victory so long ago. So it's my turn to say, thank you France.
I have spent many important days away from my home base. I have missed family birthdays, I have been absent for the birth of friends’ babies, and the funerals of loved ones. I have spent Christmas in the Caribbean, Easter in England, and Thanksgiving in Canada. Being away at such times is never easy.
But as I was contemplating what to do on Saturday, I realized that I have never in my entire life spent the 4th of July outside of my own country. And when you’re not in the U.S. on this particular day, you really celebrate alone.
Generally on the 4th of July, I spend the weekend with family at my mother’s cabin in Northern Wisconsin, or I spend it camping with close friends. Either way, it involves food, beverage, chatter, camaraderie, fireworks and a day off work. Not always however, has it involved much reflection. I mean, let’s face it. We all sometimes tend to take for granted what we have and how we came to get it.
So on this day, as I made an arrangement of white flowers in a blue Provencal pitcher and stuck my tiny American flag in it, I thought about my country, which I have chosen to leave for awhile, and what I love about it and what others love (or don’t love) about it.
The French love to TALK about everything and everywhere you go you hear them discussing politics, religion, art, music and philosophy. This is one of the things I find charming about them and also something I find very frustrating at times. However, the subject of my country has come up often and I am always curious to hear their thoughts even if I don’t agree with everything that is said. There is always value in discourse, isn’t there?
Of course there are criticisms of the U.S., some valid and some more a result of the caricature of the United States built on the back of American films, television and media coverage.
The general criticism of my country is its arrogance. The way America and Americans often seem to think that no matter where we are in the world, it belongs to us.
We are sometimes referred to (not kindly) as “les gendarmes du la monde” or policemen of the world.
They think we are a consuming monster much of the time (And we are. I am continually amazed by the way people here manage with tiny cars, smaller homes, less land, fewer belongings and clothes and how they have succeeded in incorporating so many energy saving tricks in their daily lives).
Some think we’re bossy, egotistical, warmongering and secluded and uninformed about the rest of the world.
All of these criticisms hold some grain of truth…some more than others (as do our criticisms of the French) but that’s not what I want to write about. That's another article. Today I want to think about what is loved about where I come from.
So what do they love about us? In fact, they love a lot of things, even if they don’t always admit it (a French friend of mine says they’re just jealous). They love our spirit and our exuberance and attitude that all things are possible. They are thankful for our strength (on D-Day a French friend called me just to say thank you) and they love our inventiveness and our entrepreneurship.
Another French friend of mine likened his country and the rest of Europe to “an elderly person”. I, in turn, compared my country to a teenager. Those of you who have had teenagers (at least teenage boys, which are my only experience) know of what I speak. They eat all the time, they take long, water and heat consuming showers, they sleep too long, stay up too late, they bounce off the walls and trip over their own feet. They are egocentric and not always very cognizant of how their actions affect others and what kind of havoc they can cause in their wake. They are always right. They have a short history and though on the verge of adulthood, they don’t always have the wisdom of years.
On the other hand, they are excited about something all the time, they are full of ideas and hope, they are sure they can accomplish all of their grandiose ideas, no matter how off the wall they might seem. No is not a word they seem to understand nor is “you can’t do that” or ” that’s not possible”. They are physically strong and are still not really sure of the best way to use that power. But they have faith that their future is promising and bright. They are both charming and hateful but completely lovable.
I have come from a country that is still experiencing its teens. With all the charms and foibles that accompany those burgeoning years. And right now I’m visiting an elderly neighbor. You know the one…. you love to visit her home and share coffee and a pastry. You chat and listen to the stories of days gone by and look at her collections of old, beautiful things. You love to hear about what she’s learned through the years and you hope to gain wisdom from her mistakes and her triumphs. You listen patiently (but you’re slightly annoyed) as she explains how things used to be and how uncultured today’s generation is. You agree in many ways but you also know that today’s generation has it’s own wonderful and unique qualities that you wouldn’t trade for anything. You nod your head and smile because she is delightful and wise in many ways, in spite of some of her exasperating opinions.
But sometimes, she just spends a lot of time complaining about almost everything, seems a little resigned to the way things have turned out and she talks a lot but doesn’t seem to get much done.
So I’m still having coffee at the neighbor’s. I’m having a lovely time and enjoying every minute of it and our conversation is not over yet. But the life that I know, back in the good, old US of A, is still the one I will return to…after the coffee klatch is over. And when that time comes, it will be good to be home.