It’s Hard to Feel French Here
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It’s hard to feel French when you’re not in France. Or is it? The fact of the matter is I tend to see things with a French point of view even when I’m in the U.S.
There’s no question it’s undoubtedly easier since I’m in Washington, DC, which acquires an internationalist undercurrent from the embassies and transnational institutions such as the World Bank, the German Marshall Fund, and the Organization of American States. On the other hand, the Luxembourg Garden is only a block away from my apartment in Paris. And in Paris, my usual two-minute sprint to the bakery finds me returning home with a just-out-of-the oven baguette that smells so good, it’s rare when it gets to the apartment without my having devoured (at the very least) its heel—which they tell me, anyway, is required by French law.
My D.C. digs don’t have local clochards or street people visible within a block or two of my walking out the door. I’d have to get in the car to find someone begging for coins, which is easily done. But I don’t make a habit of going downtown in order to be benevolent. And if I do, the best option available to me, since I don’t like giving cash to fuel their next drunk, is to buy some poor soul a burger from McDonalds instead of a chunk of Brie, which I am told on occasion is not yet ripe enough to eat.
Even though I’m less than two miles from the White House, the apartment is in the suburbs. Rather than seeing rooftops, I look at treetops from the 14th floor windows.
Having said that, my neighbor across the hall is French, in addition to many other residents. Come to think of it, that shouldn’t be a shock since there are more than 250 units in the building. Because the elevators are gargantuan compared to my retrofitted one in Paris, where you feel you have to get married if there are more than two people in it, people tend to bump into one another frequently and have more of an opportunity to exchange words when the elevator stops at several floors on the way up to mine.
The mail arrives each afternoon and people tend to congregate and meet and greet and dump the junk mail into a paper recycle bin. There’s where I encounter more French natives. They work at the French Embassy, the International Monetary Fund, or another international organizations.
If you get on the mailing list, you can do something French each morning, noon and night. There’s the Alliance Française where you can enroll in French classes, attend lectures, participate in tours and meet a lot of people from the French community who cluster there. There’s also La Maison Française if you’re looking for French.
In addition, there’s an active international group that sponsors something to do or see practically every evening—including how to waltz—that took place at the French ambassador’s residence.
I’ve been invited to join a French movie group and have been remiss because I’m working and would rather try the French restaurants that spring up in the Washington area. Besides, I’m here for a finite period of time and would rather try to teach my granddaughters some French.
Not wanting to lose my knowledge about wines, many liquor stores sponsor wine tastings and some take place almost every day of the week. Winery representatives more than likely speak French because they are French or have learned it and are more than delighted to discuss its smell, taste, nose, and bouquet in their native tongue and are pleasant about putting up with my butchering their language and (contrasted to when I’m in Paris) don’t tease me about my accent or immediately start speaking English.
Wine bars are à la mode here and are multiplying like mushrooms. I try to concentrate on sampling French wines, but have been known to succumb to drinking wine from different countries, especially ones from California. Dollar for dollar (as weak as it is against the euro), my take is that comparable French wines cost less that ones from the Napa or Sonoma Valleys.
Some of Washington’s great pleasures are its museums, which are rarely as crowded as those in Paris. Go to the French collections at the National Gallery of Art and the Phillips Collection and you see paintings that were created by France’s greatest masters. When I was in my teens, I lived two blocks away from the Phillips and would stop and sit in front of Renoir’s painting Luncheon of the Boating Party. That painting really motivated me to study the French Impressionists and painters from the French luminous period.
Some people comment that Americans tend to hang out with one another when they live in Paris and unless they’re coupled with a French native, they can live their lives as permanent expats.
It’s clear the same is true for the French who live in Washington. Their children can attend the French school and live in a relatively cloistered environment. But, isn’t that missing out on the best of different cultures and not assimilating? I have no illusions that anyone will ever think I’m French… unless they look into my inner soul.
But scratch even deeper and they’ll quickly see that I was born here and will always be a Washingtonian. For that matter there are few of us who can claim their family lived in the Nation’s Capital when it was a village and my granddaughters are fifth generation.
So, it’s a compromise, I suppose, but maybe an unequal one. The things I love about France and the French can be had in Washington, at the price of some effort and often enough money changing hands. In Paris, they’re just there. I can’t do anything about it, so I have learned to live with the compromise and have grown to like it.
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