Sunday, January 23, 2011

French thoughts on an American life

I’m sorry to say, but I ended up switching books this week. As sometimes happens, time and circumstance get the best of me, and there is just not enough energy at the end of the day. So instead of reading The Mother Tongue (which will remain on my booklist because the first few chapters were excellent), I decided to finish a book we had started this week in my French class called Sacrés Américains!  by Ted Stanger. Lame, I know. Alas, I really like this French book. The author, Stanger, was born in Columbus, OH, studied Journalism at Princeton and ended up living in France for the better part of his adult life. After having written his first book Sacrés Français!, which points out the humorous particularities of French lifestyle, Stanger decides to go back home to Columbus and write about his experiences back in the US from a very French perspective. The author willingly admits that the States are an entirely different place than when he left in the 70s (he is writing in 2004, in the middle of wars in the Middle East, Bush-isms, and “freedom fries”, which no doubt influenced his opinion of America).

What I’ve found really fascinating while reading this book is that, in spite of a number of negative things Stanger asserts about the US, I still feel enriched after having read it. Much as an anthropologist analyzes an ancient civilization based on its artifacts, an outsider analyzes a nation based on its laws, its people, its practices, and its culture. Stanger presents a unique view of the situation because he grew up in the States so he understands in a way how society functions, however, he comes back to his roots fairly desensitized and asks more critical questions of why things are the way they are. 
As an American who spent a time living in Paris, I would say that I’m more tolerant or even more accepting than most when it comes to critiques of the US. I’ve heard the fast-food bit, and the obesity, and the commercialism, and the neglect for the environment, et cetera. None of those critiques really bother me because I make my own choices and try to affect positive change, but I understand also that I’m only one person. But some of Stanger’s critiques were strikingly relevant to my life, especially when he talked about the Protestant work ethic and how Americans define themselves by their jobs. How often in this last week have I talked about how busy I am doing whatever it is that I’m doing, as if that somehow defines who I am or how happy or content I may be? This is something I struggle with constantly: I work so hard to excel, and at the same time I get annoyed that I don’t take time to smell the roses, or take six weeks of vacation a year like the French do. When I lived in France I absolutely loved this mindset and kicked myself for spending so much time working and studying back in the States; but here I am again, a year after I left for Paris, back in that rut again. 

Reading this book this past week made me see again that it’s really easy to get stuck in the same old routine, and sometimes what it takes is an outsider looking in to make you realize what you’re missing and what you’re doing wrong. Each book each week has taught me something new about life and about people, and it gets me out of the blinders-on mindset that everything in my teeny-tiny world is revolving around me, and I need that. The beauty of travel, and of reading, and of art, and of all these things I love is that they give me just a glimpse into another reality, one that takes me outside the quotidian and shows me that there is another way. I’m learning (and re-learning) everyday that life is made up of a beautiful, crazy assortment of experiences, and I hope that you are coming to know that, too. 

Anyway, on to next week. Although I did never quite get to Bill Bryson’s book, I’m going to save that for another week and keep going with the fiction / non-fiction routine. This week, I’ll be reading Feed by M.T. Anderson, a futuristic novel my good friend Casey recommended. Should be good! I’m excited for fiction again, which should be a nicebreak from all the school related reading I’ve been doing (wait, wasn’t second semester senior year supposed to be easy?). Have a great week everyone!

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