(photo by ladyaxis.deviantart.com)
At a recent soirée de fléchettes, a French friend asked me what kind of music I like. In all our conversations, we had never discussed anything so personal. Mostly, we discuss French and American culture / language as seen through the eyes of the other- myself being the other for French and my French friends being the outsider for American culture and the English language. I was caught a little off guard as I knew the answer would expose my American spirit. There’s nothing wrong with an American spirit; it’s just not very French and I didn’t want to show it to my French friend as I thought it might change his opinion of me. But if you can’t be honest with your friends, with whom can you be honest? So I started running down my short list (I’m not the biggest consumer of music) of artists starting with my favorite. I explained to Mathieu, my French friend, that I love angry music because I’m American in spirit. He didn’t believe me saying that I am French at heart.
Now the annoying, but convenient at times, thing about this dart bar is that the music gets pretty loud after 9 pm. I guess the clock must have struck nine o’clock because it got too loud to casually converse so we went back to playing darts. I don’t remember if I even won or lost that night. But I do remember our conversation. It got me thinking what it means to be French at heart and American in spirit. Is there really a difference and if there is, can two opposites thrive within the same being? To get my answer, I started thinking about my Paris study abroad experience.
(I went back here to find my answers. Photo by Derya Senol https://instagram.com/senolphotography/)
When I went to Paris, I was a young punk rocker who loved the darker things in life- hair color, clothes, music. I loved the rawness of unnecessary anger. There is something freeing about embracing and loving this extremely primal emotion. It’s this anger and willingness to jump into battle which I think really epitomizes American culture. Now don’t get me wrong, I love America and in many respects Americans are a benevolent and compassionate people. But we have an unhealthy and insatiable love of anger and violence. Don’t believe me? Just turn on the TV, pick up any smash hit book (can you say Hunger Games or Gone Girl?), or listen to the songs on the radio. Violence and anger are so engrained into our culture, it’s in our DNA. We love to hate it and hate to love it.
When I was trying to explain how I am American in spirit to Mathieu in that dart bar, I was thinking of that anger. The same anger that I hear and rejoice in when I jam out to an Eminem CD in my morning commute. I wouldn’t consider myself an angry person, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t like to think angry sometimes. It’s just an emotion like happiness or sadness. It’s healthy to address it in music or in fantasy, just not reality. Going back to my time in France, I found out that the French have a different relationship with anger and violence than Americans. It’s not to say that the French don’t have anger or violent crimes; it’s just that they don’t idolize them in the way that Americans do.
These themes are not so readily found in French music, movies, and books. When I think of French culture, I think of Vanessa Paradis’ 80s tube (hit song) Joe le taxi and the film La moustache. I think of a people who would prefer to talk it out rather than pull out their fists as if it’s the Wild West or the OK corrale. But the American spirit isn’t just violent and angry; it’s also over the top and inventive. A perfect example of this can be found in Victor Hugo’s Around the World in 80 Days. There’s a scene when the French main character is on a train which is about to go over a cliff due to a missing bridge. The passengers are all discussing how to stop the train and get to the other side when the American passenger gives his opinion. His suggestion? To increase the speed of the train so that it jumps over the cliff. It was completely over the top and very American which M. Hugo points out in the book. It worked by the way! Another example of this aspect of the American spirit is when I was in Tatie’s apartment and noticed there was no fire escape. When I asked what we would do in case of a fire, she said we call the fire dept and wait. My American spirit was immediately concocting up Spider Man-esque ways of escape. To sit and wait in a burning building may be French, but it’s not American.
(The embodiment of the American spirit. Photo by gallery4collectors.com)
Once I figured out what it meant to be American in spirit (which I still totally am), I contemplated what it meant to be French at heart. What I was able to conclude is that to be French at heart means that you have a different outlook on life. It means that you value good friends and relationships (over good food of course!); that you think, talk, rethink, and re-talk everything through (instead of using your fists) to solve a problem; that even when things are going good, you’re thinking of ways that they can be better; and that you appreciate beauty in all its uniqueness. In that way, I’m very French at heart. But keep this in mind, If we’re having a deep discussion over a great meal about the issues of life, I’ll politely disagree with you while envisioning a more over the top way of handling the issue in my head. I may be French at heart, but I’m still American in spirit.