MICHAEL JEWELL A&E Editor
I’m writing this column from the south of France, admittedly a hard place from which to pen one of my usual seething, bitter screeds.
I’m of a particular American type that idealizes anywhere else, Europe being a bigger interest in lieu of any icky post-colonial fascination with the developing world. I’m rootless, an untraceable ethnic mishmash with no mother church whose expression of regional pride goes hand-in-hand with backwardness and know-nothing-ism.
I don’t know why being part of a culture, any culture, is so attractive to me, but right now I want so badly to be French.
I love the French, or at least the sensual, Epicureans my travel guides lead me to believe them to be. All the gut-reactionary xenophobic anti-Gallic rot that is evidently preternatural to Anglophone countries but reached a fever-pitch in my own America at the turn of the last century just made me love the French more.
Of course, it’s easy to America-bash when I’m safely sipping Pastis in the middle of the afternoon in a café six time zones to the right on the globe from my native Alabama, where this activity is undoubtedly frowned upon.
Pastis, the cloudy yellow aperitif that reeks of anis is a lower-gravity substitute for absinthe drank before lunch, almost exclusively in Provence. I’m keen to appreciate the special regionality of this licorice-like beverage, coming from a country where regional food and drink means switching from White Castle to Krystal burger on the drive South on I-95.
That’s a little unfair, I know, but I’ve just come back from a Saturday market where I had my pick of locally grown vegetables, used books, hand-cured charcuterie and boudin noir, cheeses, fresh bread (from like, 15 local bakeries in a town of only about 9,000 people), fresh seafood, pickled garlic, soap, olive oil and sweets, sundry items that drew the entire town into the narrow streets.
It’s possible to get great stuff like this back home, yes, but now mostly as a dalliance for those lucky enough to afford it. I, like most people, am happy enough with my local Kroger.
So I love it here. I’m freakin’ crazy about France. I’m desperate to dissect and analyze and second guess my experience to soften my growing dissatisfaction with my native country that I’m proud to come from.
It’s not like there aren’t chain supermarkets from the Rhone Valley to Normandy. I’d love to replace the sad, desperate American drinking culture I’ve let myself be swept up in with the more “enlightened” daily moderation of Southern Europe and ignore France’s eye-popping alcohol dependency statistics.
It’s honestly hard to choose between my native secular culture that has bred outrageous fundamentalism that spreads like mold spores on a ripe Epoisse and Europe’s current moderation generated from a thousand years of repression and sectarian bloodshed.
I don’t want to have the best time of my life at the expense of all my life that came before it. I mostly just don’t want to come back as a snot-nosed brat with a brand-new accent constantly shitting on my own country while insisting Europe is so much better.
In some ways it is. In other ways it isn’t.
“These people are prisoners of their tradition,” says Finn McEoin, the Irish-born, self-elected Poet Laureate of Lacoste on the Luberon.
That’s one way of looking at it. In light of that, I’ll take a moment to toast my own traditions as an American: creativity, unbelievable work ethic, liberal democracy, secularism (while it lasts, I’m counting down the days; ditto for the democracy), and an independent spirit – may all the Wal-Marts in the world never crush it.
Viva la France, and dammit, viva la USA!