Wednesday, August 4, 2010
At Odds with the Father Land
Over the last few years I have spent a fair amount of time in France. It's proximity to the Netherlands makes it a natural vacation spot for Dutch people. France offers a much more diverse terrain and climate than the Netherlands, which is basically flat and wet. In France you have mountains, beaches, hills, valleys, rivers and of course Paris. For me though, because France is where my dad was born and spent his first 16 years and although it has taken me many years to realize it, France holds an added, but strange appeal for me.
I have never and still do not consider myself to be French. And I can say that like many Americans, I enjoy disliking the French. They are, at least to an American way of thinking rude and annoying and there have been many times when I must admit I enjoy being loud, obnoxious and gregarious in their presence. Plus, the surrender jokes just come naturally. Although my dad was born French, his parents emigrated to France from Poland and I was born in America, so I guess you could say France was a sort of rest stop in my ethnic origin. I did grow up hearing French spoken in my grandparents' home, as my dad, aunt and grandparents primarily spoke French to each other, although they did not push or encourage any of us in the next generation to speak French.
My grandparents really adored France and the French way of life or at least the pre-war French way of life. They both fell in love with the French language, with French food, culture, music. My grandfather was reasonably successful in their early years and it was much easier for them to assimilate in France and they both loved that. They no longer lived in a shtetl and they took full advantage of the opportunities that assimilation offered them. My aunt was born in 1933 and my dad, born at the end of 1934. Life was good for them until the war started in 1939. I am not going to go into their experiences during that time here, as I have done that in earlier posts, but these were difficult years. I can still remember looking at old photos of my dad as a toddler in Paris, at the Eiffel tower or later at home and my grandmother talked often about the French way of life, it wasn't so much what she said, but how she said it. I didn't grow up knowing a lot of details of their lives (the war left its mark and my grandparents were careful not to talk about that), but I definitely grew up with a sense that they loved France.
My dad is a different story. His experience living in France was largely unpleasant. Being only 5 when the war broke out, he spent a lot of his formative years living in difficult circumstances and it had it's effect on him. Unlike his sister, my Aunt, who studied France at university and ended up being a French professor who traveled back to France often with her children and students. My dad didn't end up going back to France for more than 30 years after he left. He didn't embrace the land of his birth in any real way. Sure, he loved wine and cheese and he would drive an hour each way to one of the few French bakeries in Pittsburgh on a Sunday morning to bring home croissants and pain au chocolat and he did speak French with my grandparents. But when my grandparents or my aunt talked about France there was a certain longing in the way they talked about it. My dad didn't have that in common with them. Although in many ways my father remains an enigma to me and there are many things I can or will never fully understand, I do know that he did not have a lot of love or connection to France. I am not sure exactly why that is, and to explore it here would make this post way long and probably not that coherent. The short answer is that I think my dad was really too young when the war broke out and he just associated what must have been a terrifying time with France. My dad firmly embraced being an American and I always had the feeling that he wanted to forget that he had ever been from anywhere else. Being both a dutiful daughter but mostly afraid to press him on anything, we did not talk all that much about it.
I went to France for the first time in 1995, to visit a good friend of mine who was living in Paris and I have been back to France more times than I can count ever since. Being only a 3 hour train ride from Paris and having that same good friend living there, makes Paris an easy and somewhat frequent weekend jaunt for me. The food and the shopping don't hurt either. I have also spent time in the South of France, the Loire Valley and most recently in the Dordogne region in the southwestern part of France.
There is a lot about France to love. The nature and terrain are diverse and beautiful. The food and wine are fantastic and there is something inherently charming about both French city and country life. In Paris, I love nothing more than to walk around, go shopping and drink coffee and eat pastry at one of many fabulous salon du the in the city. In the countryside, the small towns and villages have a unique charm and the simplicity of French country life (at least for a week or two) has a simplistic ease about it which is lovely, energizing and delightful. I love waking up in the morning, heading into the nearest village, buying fresh croissants, pain au chocolat and baguette and fresh fruits and vegetables in weekly markets, which are still very much a way of life for the French. I love seeing the French on market days, buying their food and placing it in little baskets which they use to carry home their purchases. I love going into the bakeries where old people buy their daily bread probably in the same bakery and town where their families have for generations. Outside of Paris the French are far away from the stereotype of rudeness which they are known for. Going for a walk in the French countryside often feels like being in a Monet painting. Maybe it is because I am an American and not much in American life is quaint (since much of it has been whitewashed with stripmalls and Olive Gardens) but there is just something about being surrounded by houses and buildings which have been around for centuries which makes me feel relaxed, giddy and happy to be alive (I think the wine doesn't hurt).
And even though I never traveled to France with my dad or my grandparents, in some manner I see and feel them at every turn when I am there. There are just little things I notice which are similar to things I have seen and grown up with. For instance, when I was a kid I used to ask my grandmother why they went grocery shopping every day (actually every evening). American stores, even in the 1970's were huge, as were refrigerators, kitchens, cupboards, etc. so it was easy enough to stalk up for the week. Now in Paris or in small towns I see people go out each day with their shopping bags, baskets or little carts and go and buy food for the day. This is because their kitchens, fridges, etc. are too small to hold more than a day or two of food, so they shop each day. When I was a kid, one of my grandmother's standby meals (actually THE standby meal) was steak with french fries, green beans and salad. My grandmother made her french fries in a very special way. They were not the American kind that you dip in ketchup, but they were short, a little bit crispy on the outside and soft on the inside without being greasy. They were almost slow cooked over a very low temperature for a long time. My parents, brothers, cousins and I used to beg my grandmother to make them whenever we went over there. When I am in France, particularly in the southern part of France, I can eat what are the closest thing to her French fries when I have a steak-frites. When I was a kid my grandmother used to use dish towels which were not made of terrycloth, in the US they are called tea towels and my mother never used them. Whenever I go to the markets I see only tea towels for sale, the same ones like she used to have, with little flowers or pieces of fruit on them. I have pictures of my daughter playing at the park very close to the Eiffel Tower in Paris (it's a lovely park) and I can remember my grandmother having pictures of my dad and aunt playing there as young children when they went there during a family trip. They have the same little cars and swings that my dad played in. Even though my dad died before he could meet Maya and she will never get to know him, every time I look at those photos of Maya playing in that park I feel like I have completed a generational connect-the-dot drawing. It's very little things and sometimes I feel like I am reaching, but still, even though France is not my home, there is a strange familiarity for me there.
Still, despite all the things to love about France, I have a hard time letting myself truly love the place. Certainly my family experienced a lot of hardships in an unimaginable time and those left their scars, both on them, but by extension also on me. My dad was certainly never able to make peace with what he experienced in those years and as he lived out the last decade or so of his life, it consumed him and caused him to lash out with unimaginable anger at those around him to the point where he had cut off or alienated himself from everyone and everything which had been important to him. He, not France are accountable for that but while I find certain comfort and familiarity in France, there is also a very real sadness for me about the place. Last week, while having an absolutely wonderful time, I was awakened suddenly in the middle of the night with an overwhelming feeling of sadness. I got up and paced around our vacation house for a good 2-3 hours, much in the way my dad used to pace our house when I was growing up, unable to sleep, unable to do anything but just walk back and forth. I just had this feeling of overwhelming sorrow for no reason, knowing that I was sleeping in the land where my dad was born and knowing that he probably never had experienced the joy of being in France, that he probably never felt the experience of being in a Monet painting but knowing that his experience in the same place was far from where mine was, his was full of uncertainty and terrifying at times and though he and his family survived the war, the experience greatly contributed to a lot of anger, unhappiness and sorrow for him which lasted his entire life and affected all who were close to him. Finally after hours of pacing, I crawled into my daughter's bed, laid on my side and put my arms around her and it took a while, but next to her I was finally able to again let sleep wash over me.