"The risk is that one is an alien..." /> A few good summer pages… – French Quarter Magazine

Art & Culture

Published on August 16th, 2014 | by Nathalie Monsaint-Baudry


A few good summer pages…

“The risk is that one is an alien in his own country”.
Descartes, Introduction to the Speech of the Method (1637)

This is the month of August. The summer is in full swing. You need to know that in France the time of the great summer exhalation or, better, a large human migration out of France – without stopovers. Time appears to not have a grip on things in France during this period which precedes that great leap forward – said of the return to school. Why not engage in a daydream? Why not let go a little to take back some of our cultural alchemy?

Here, I invite you to browse a few pages in the form of small thumbnails extracted from my essay in order to try to put words on reflections as we are all custodians when we wander away from and when we return to France. In order not to “become foreigners in our own country” — precious and fair warning from our dear Descartes — I invite you to daydream. In August, daydreams are authorized in France, in fact, they are strongly encouraged.

Set your gaze
What allows me to write this stems from my roundtrips between Los Angeles and France. When I was a full-time resident of Los Angeles, I was in the process of being Americanized, and totally incapable of many thoughts related to my French mindset. This was an inevitable relapse, as it was necessary to have a certain perspective to be able to think with a more objective angle of analysis. Now, I have the correct distance to talk about it, that is to say, I am neither too close nor too far away from it all and that liberates me from the inherent myopia that one has when they are at the center or at the heart of the matter and able to talk about it. … Knowing that I had chosen to live in the United States and to make my life there, I have played the “game” without reservation. Nevertheless, this good will had the insidious effect of accentuating the nostalgia of a certain idea of France, and I forgave it willingly with social movements and sullenness which gave me the luxury of avoidance. One forgives their country a lot.

Each summer, during my annual return, the emotion was always extremely intense at the sight of the coasts of France perceived from the plane, the quick beating of your heart when faced with the feeling of finding your native land again, your French family. I must say that becoming American over my long residence in California, a representation of France was just outlined in me. All those sunny summers, from the edge of the sea, family reunions, France was for good moods and only for vacations. My roundtrips meant that France was observed only in passing, and that on my return, Los Angeles became a city that I could actually observe.


California Poppy – Photo by Nathalie Monsaint-Baudry

Let the city permeate you
Daydreaming means a state of mind conducive to acceptance … to accept the invasion and suspension of one’s judgment … one must pick flowers locally… I always keep my olfactory memory intact, the fragrance of eucalyptus, the bushes of wormwood or sage of the desert, a sprig of dill, absinthe and wild fennel that constitute the essence of this combination of fragrances unique to the chaparral of Southern California… The orange color of the eschscholzia californica, or California poppy, this flower is the symbol of the State of California, whose seeds are now sown a little everywhere in France. Should we see in this a metaphor of the Californization of the planet ? The red-magenta and pink Tyrians of ice seedlings, or-wort… and this jasmine that releases its fragrance at nightfall as to deprive us of its scent during the scorching heat of the daylight hours, but is otherwise perfect during the day… The music of crystalline chimes under the Pacific winds in Malibu, the tartness of the ceviche bar’s marinated lemon green, mango and fresh cilantro (cilandro) at Las Brisas on Laguna Beach… That is what I immediately associate with Los Angeles if I close my eyes for a moment… and it is all of this together. During my long trips in the Sierras, cycling and walking in the canyons, I have inhaled the existence of Los Angeles. Thus, it is necessary to develop the presence of spirit, the presence of the spirit of this place. Let the city permeate you… This delicious floating state, maybe an osmotic permeability with the world leading toward a state of grace. Above all, it is a city, a country, the scents, the lack of odors that we ought to have, the paradoxical tastes, sour-sweet, music and lights of another chromatic range, silences where one expects noise … of intonations outside of our usual diapasonal sounds, and finally of different animals of “home” and of human beings not necessarily similar. This set of things will imprint deeply on our conscience and the representation that it shapes will naturally never be multi-sensory. Extreme vulnerability is necessary in order to place us in this state of porosity.

There are some surprising phenomena that are anachronisms in a city so modern (Los Angeles). At 4 pm sharp, the old fashioned music box siren, which is predictable and indistinguishable, signals the triumphal entry of the traveling seller of ice cream, the ice cream man, in our neighborhood. It is the most longed-for interruption of the afternoon. All the children gather together. A few quarters and dimes are piled up in a reservoir provided for that purpose. They rush, braving the heat of the California summer, toward this magician of the cold. The Americans always have a container full of coins, or “small change”. It is also, the greasy memory of the so-called “roach coaches”, they smack of burning fat aggravated by the heat, of enchiladas, tortillas, guacamole, quesadillas and nachos. They serve a cheap meal to employees at their place of work, in the confusion of the buzzing dissonance of the Mexican mariachis. Creating a place for spontaneous life in an otherwise deserted street. I do not know why, but every time that I have heard the Mariachi bands, the trumpets blew as off-key as the untuned guitars. Is this the norm for the Jalisco sound? Today, the roach coaches of yesteryear have mutated into fusion, or gourmet food trucks.

Starbuckization, muffinization & sushization
On our arrival at the airport, we are forcefully immersed in a world that does not allow easy introduction and which looks like all the other airports in the world with its Starbucks, the same sushi bar, the same muffins, the same smoothies. The planet, after being McDonald”ed”, is in the process of being “Starbuckisized”, “muffinized”, and “sushi-ized” and now of being “cupcake-ized”. We are of the illusion, not totally false, that it is the same everywhere. […] Before leaving for the “New World”, I thought that everything had to be decidedly different from France and Europe since it is called “new”. Even the regular grass should decidedly be “new”. I was disappointed to find the same nettles (stinging nettles) that are in our ditches in France, although they never stung us. Each time that I encountered them, I rubbed myself in that area… almost nostalgic for this burn, reminiscent of our childhood games in France. The same is true for the mulberry trees, blackberry or black mulberry, I took unnecessary precautions as the brambles were devoid of thorns. Is it then a civilized nature since there weren’t any thorns? The weeds, however, are as bad as at home … The shell of the egg is too white… like butter, the leaven of the sour dough bread is too acidic. I was delighted to see that the robins here are disproportionately large and the turkeys, like the wasps, and killer bees… oversized, just like the pine cones from the Ponderosa Pine, ugh… all a good American size! The abalone is only a giant abalone… […] We spent the first three years making an inventory of it all, it is very exhausting to measure, convert and size…

All energy is in the gauging, the sorting, the adoption of a new yardstick, the taxonomy, the taking of measurements, the change of our method of shopping in the supermarkets, almost a job for a person with machetes, like the explorers in the modern Amazon jungle. Once that you believe that you understand it all (at every level) and that you know everything by name, you discover the black widow… in the beginning, at the back of a cupboard, or in the garage, […] and a call is made to the “Terminator”! There are so many ways to exterminate: gas, micro-wave, freezing among others. Then there is the time of the first possums or opossums. In my opinion, this mythical Amerindian animal is a monstrous creature. This marsupial with a rat’s tail emerges from the prehistoric past in front of you, along your fence line. This sluggard gets nourishment from the avocados in the garden, in an environment that is very urban. Then there is the first encounter with a raccoon that, very astute with his claws, vandalizes the garbage can, or infiltrates your residence with the aplomb of a thief via a doggie door. He looks you right in the eye, the black mask identifying his two balls of obsidian brilliance, crimped with a dark fur, a case that makes it appear even more like a thief. Racial profiling? I have experienced this with them head to head, and watched them fleeing in flagrante delicto during the night. His claws possess great dexterity that even allow him to open zippers! The musky stench, detectable at least a mile away, of the ferret, or skunk, will impair you ad nauseam, curiously, though, you do get used to it. The rapidly growing Colibri will amaze you, the purples and oranges of the bougainvillea with its messy drippings everywhere will delight you. One day, you will discover the treachery of poison ivy, the poisonous ivy, or poison oak, the poisonous sumac when hiking in a canyon. We come face to face with rattlesnakes in the middle of a rocky path. Finally, the first earthquake has just baptized you on a beautiful morning (they are all beautiful) when you are knocked out of your bed. Nothing had prepared you for all this in France.

The French woman who arrives here needs to understand this environment and to draw information from this territory in order to make a way for her and her family, it goes back to the dawn of time and is not the exclusive purview of the French. Nevertheless to say, she is doing this in the French way with all the “je-ne-sais-quoi” that is buried in her culture. It is the order of removing the essential from the husk.

Infusion and suspension
Before everything, I think about the cultural infusion for the very, very long term and through exchanges by capillary action, by meetings reflecting everyday life and on a very, very slow categorization. A truce. One must be polished with a certain reality of American life, and be prepared to be bitten by surprise. Finally, the books teach little of the preliminaries. They give you the groundwork, but sometimes you arm yourself with a false sense of certainty or assurance which can only be of disservice to you because you cannot escape reality. Only with direct experience on the ground will you violently face a tarmac on which you must now learn to walk. The English gave this head-on collision a more potent label than the French: “This is what you are up against.”

commensales, adventices

commensales, adventices – Photo by Nathalie Monsaint-Baudry

A whispering language
The expression, we are in the swing of things, denotes a certain swing, a tempo, which means that we are caught in a universal pace that is more or less regular. With this great movement, you go with the flow, paced by the sound of ambient music as forms of electro-acoustical compositions are aired on radio stations with elevator style-music which according to studies, is supposed to increase your heart rate. These melodies give you the impulse to accelerate your speed which forces you to pedal faster, or better yet they anesthetize you as if by chloroform. Everything happens as if these reassuring jingles are just background music. The Californian is on a treadmill which rolls for him and also for itself, as these treadmills or life cycles, literally these cycles of life, fitness clubs, these belts that turn to infinity and give the illusion to the user that it is made of kilometers in a virtual decor carpeted by flat screens on which the prices of the NASDAQ are scrolled while he is still in the same spot. Another day begins, identical to the one before … it must be absolutely identical to the one before… The temperatures are in the mid-eighties… Another beautiful day in Southern California is the theme song of the meteorological reports. Because everything flows in a permanent stream and flow in Los Angeles. It is always beautiful. Insignificant details of a regular morning, identical to all the sublime mornings from Los Angeles. It is predictable. Predictable. Also, when a day becomes predictable, one is always on time, everything that one had planned happens naturally. There is no obstacle for projects. The accidental is not feasible, the grain of sand is absent from the cogs of the wheel. It is reassuring to hear the sprinkler system in the middle of the night, automatic watering, triggered on a timer… because that also must be programmed at a fixed time, the sprinkler’s heads will emerge through the turf or sod to give us the illusion that this desert is in fact permanently saturated with water imported from the Sierras. Yes, the noises are reassuring in L. A. The cars are silent. The concert of garage doors, or automatic garage doors which reveals different generations according to the noise and the flexibility of the elevation begins early in the morning. If yours indicates that you have an older model, you will sense the intense stares of your neighbors which signifies that you need to change the model, or purchase an upgrade to a newer system that produces less noise. You must go with the flow. The Angelins, cross each other in the mornings with these rituals: the concert of automatic doors, automatic watering systems, cup of coffee or a mug in hand, scantily clad in order to either put out or bring in the garbage cans, or fresh milk placed on the door step.

One thing is certain, Americans cannot bear silence, awkward silence, eerie silence, are the expressions which reveal the malaise… an angel passes…

Returning to France during the summer, it is impossible not to notice the quality of the silence. The silence is in the street, the quality of the silence that one experiences during the meal. No sound is superimposed on another. There is an absence of unnecessary noise. Let’s observe a frequent scene: two Americans conduct a conversation on the same terrace of a brewery, in a church or elsewhere and they alone are enough to completely and phonetically cannibalize the dominant French conversation. The two Americans will suck the life out of the area and will prevail in loudness. The French people change where they are standing or will ask the Americans to speak less loudly.

Our language fine, whispered, fragile and feminine does not make the cut. The Americans were never aware of the ‘masculine’ and aggressive sound level that they impose on those around them. It is a losing battle. However, the French will be amazed at the good grace with which the Americans will apologize. Lack of awareness but goodwill. When I speak French in France, I speak from the tip of the lips … I go back to whispering.

A culture of looks
Henry James wrote in “Italian Hours”: ” The big difference between the public places of America and those in Europe relates to the number of idle peoples of all ages and conditions, positioned on the benches everywhere very early until late, and observing you from head to toe as you pass by. Europe is certainly a continent that exercises observation. “

We often say that with each return to France, we once again, experience the feeling of being a woman, and are again regarded as such, not as undifferentiated beings. Once again, we find the spiciness, the sharpness, the salaciousness. We appreciate being noticed. And with this, it is not necessary to change a thing.

“Nathalie Monsaint-Baudry , Cultural Crystallizations, be American and French,” 2010, in free access on: www.pbaudry.com. Paper version available on: http://www.harvard.com/book/etre_francaise_et_americaine/


About the Author

is a French born and naturalized American. Nathalie Monsaint-Baudry lived in Italy and in the US - mostly in California - for about twenty years, studying linguistics in Italy, France and the US, art history, film studies and comparative literature. She earned a CAPES in 1990 from the French Ministry of Education. She majored in American Civilization Studies with a Master's degree from the University of Nantes, France. While in Los Angeles, she worked in pre-production and post-production for independent movie directors, films d'auteurs, translating for example, Elia Kazan's Beyond the Eagean with author and filmmaker, Michael Henry Wilson. Upon returning to France, she worked as a cross-cultural facilitator, professor & consultant. She is an essayist and contributor for various French and US magazines. Her articles, work and lectures are attempts to comprehend what happens when two very different cultures, languages, philosophical and aesthetic perspectives are at play within the same person. When the “can do” attitude collides with the Cartesian doubt, when“doing” and “being” are constantly negotiating and debating with one another. When “positive feedback” gets under the scrutiny of the French pique and critique. When simplifying is up against complexifying. She is married, two grown-up children (bi-cultural and multi-lingual), she managed a château in the Loire Valley for 8 years. She just finished restoring a XVth-XVIIth château near Nantes (Western France, by the Loire river), and is currently developing cultural projects combining her love for cooking, painting, music and her French life-style savoir-faire and savoir-vivre along with designing cultural retreats or expeditions to Italy. www.monsaintbaudry.fr http://pinterest.com/highcontext/conscience-esthétique/pins/ www.facebook.com/nathalie.monsaintbaudry

4 Responses to A few good summer pages…

  1. Laurence says:

    Encore un bon moment de lecture……très fort bravo Nathalie .

    1. Heureuse chère Laurence que tu aies retrouvé des lignes qui te parlent… cela nous ramène vers nos premières années américaines…

  2. Sandy says:

    I really enjoyed this read. I can relate some what. I grew up in France till I was 9. I still go back and forth every 2 years. France has really never left me.

    1. Dear Sandy, I am glad my vignette found some echo with you… thank you for your feedback… You too carry parts of France within you…
      Nathalie Monsaint-Baudry

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