26. March 2006 · Comments Off on The Fantasy Country · Categories: European Disunion, General, History, Memoir, Pajama Game

With a bit of surprise, I tallied it up today, and realized it has been slightly over 20 years since I was in France, actually, driving across Europe in the VEV (Very Elderly Volvo) with a nearly-5-year old Blondie tucked up in the back seat with a couple of pillows, the tattered striped baby blanket that was her woobie for more years than she is comfortable admitting and a stock of Asterix and Obelix comics. I took a zig-zaggy course across Europe in the autumn of 1985; the car-ferry from Patras to Brindisi, then up the boot of Italy, over the Brenner Pass, across the narrow neck of Austria, west across Germany with a stop in the Rhineland and a charming small town along the Moselle – and because the major roads across France were toll-roads, and (to me) hideously expensive, I went across France entirely on secondary roads, guided by my invaluable road atlas, the Hallwag Euroguide.

I hit a couple of places in France that I had visited 15 years before, as a teen-aged Girl Scout on a sub-budget, Youth-Hostel & Eurail-Pass tour of Europe, and a great many more that I had not, thanks to a slightly higher expenditure allowance (the going rate for the Youth Hostel & Eurail Pass summer vacation trip in 1970, which now seems as far distant as the proud tower of pre-WW1 Europe, was $5.00 a day.)
England— halfway home, deja-vu familiar, Germany— slight distrust, being an enemy and the land of Mordor, metaphorically speaking, for two generations, but won over by overall tidiness and devotion to children .Italy— charming, slapdash and slightly grubby. But France—there was ambivalence.

France meant so much to us, after all, and not just when it came to cooking, and an appreciation for fine food and wines. It meant marvelous architecture and interior decoration, translated into the American landscape, gallery after gallery of paintings, the Impressionists and Moderns and all. France was Monet’s Gardens, salons filled with witty conversation, the fountain of elegance in couture clothing, Madeline and the old House in Paris Covered in Vines, Chartres and the soaring galleries of the Louvre. France was the very last word in sophistication. It was where our aspiring artists and intellectuals went to acquire their training and polish, and American tourists tried for a bit of the same— although always with a feeling that such heights of worldly savoir-faire were well beyond them — and being pretty certain that the headwaiters were laughing at them anyway.

France was my collection of cookbooks, and Peter Mayle in Provence, Van Gogh’s fields of sunflowers, Chartres floating like a stone ship in a field of golden wheat, me negotiating country roads and traffic circles in tiny towns, and Blondie’s Asterix and Obelix comics. It was buying a copper pudding mold at Dillerhain, and carrying a heavy box packed full of porcelain cooking things on packed subway train car, and watching a street musician plug his electric guitar onto a portable amp, play some fast boogie-woogie, pass the hat and dash off at the next stop. France was also fields of lavender in Provence, and fields of crosses in Flanders and Normandy. We had a history with France, after all.

It’s been an on-again, off-again history at that, more troubled than most Francophiles like to admit. France is usually visualized— starting with Henry James– as the elusive and mercurial girlfriend, but it strikes me these days that France is more like an erratic and long-time occasional boyfriend. Most women have had a brush with that sort: the guy who swoops in and sweeps her off her feet, because he is attractive, and lots of fun, sometimes handsome, always cultured, at home in the world. It never lasts, because he starts to make her feel lumpish and homely by tactlessly criticizing her clothes, or preference in books and friends. Or he is denigrating her in front of his friends, laughing at her behind her back, even while he helps himself to anything he pleases of hers. And then he borrows a lot of money— never repaid— or throws a horrendous scene in a public place, and is off again for a good long time, leaving her furious and embarrassed, and wondering if he really some sort of sociopath after all. Eventually, after a couple of rounds of this, she deletes his phone number, and doesn’t answer his messages.

Which is by way of leading up to these essays written over the last half-decade or so, by an American medievalist, fluent in French, who visits often. They make depressing reading; and I look at my collection of cookbooks, and memoirs by people like Peter Mayle, and wonder if that France, of vineyards and old houses, and cafes full of charming people talking about art and history is now a fantasy itself.

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