Going Home Again

What’s the old adage? “You can never go home again”? I’ve decided that as an American living in France, it is my duty to put this theory to the test to find out if it’s just an old wives’ tale or somehow based in truth. It’s been one year and 10 months since I’ve seen the other side of the Atlantic and I feel surprisingly unhinged about my impending trip home.

The much-loved cliché originates from novelist Thomas Wolfe’s 1940 You Can’t Go Home Again. In the book, Wolfe discusses the themes of a changing America and the passing of time, within the context of a series of events that inhibit his main character George Webber of ever being able to return home again. The title of the book refers to Webber’s realization that “you can’t go back home to your family, back home to your childhood…. Back home to the old forms and systems of things which once seemed everlasting but which are changing all the time.” Basically, looking back, much less going there, is emotional suicide.

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So, here I am, in my parents’ house in Minneapolis, with remnants of my youth all around me. The first thing that returns is my pre-cell phone memory. I can’t pass a house within a ten-block radius without some long lost childhood recollection crossing my mind. Names I haven’t thought about for years pop back into my head. Old faces trigger experiences long passed. Seeing a former teacher reminds me of who I once was and who I once wanted to be. It’s painful, confusing, gut wrenching, glorious and enlightening. Who knew going back home would be so similar to schizophrenia?

Some things are the same, like good friends. The not-so-good ones show their shadows early and so, like Punxsutawney Phil, retreat into their holes, too deep to dig up ever again. The clothing people wear in the Midwest certainly is blasphemous, but I guess it always was. And the food. Don’t even get me started. If I don’t die of high fructose corn syrup poisoning by the time these five weeks are up, I’ll probably become an addict instead, requiring a drip of the stuff to slowly wean me off when I head back to France.

What I do know is that something has undeniably changed. People have changed. And it’s not because of 9 to 5 jobs or weddings or babies. It’s more than that. Life here has moved on and I am no longer a part of it. Of course, most would say that I left first, that I escaped my life to create a new one with different and more exciting memories – which is perhaps true. But can’t dualism hold a place in life? Can’t we have our cake and eat it too? In other words, can I leave home for good, but still keep a part of it back in Paris?

Whether or not I’m allowed to take a piece of my Minnesota self back to France, I know that I undoubtedly will. My twenty-some years in the U.S. won’t disappear just because I have acquired a certain fondness for buttery pastries, high fashion and the language of love. Being American has never felt so intrinsic to me than it has in these past few weeks – when I was eating my Uncle Allan’s barbecued hamburgers or putting ice in my water glass or laughing about Sarah Palin with my friend Jenny. Call them the small things, but they’re part of what makes me unique over there on the European side.

I hope that after five, or even ten more years in France, I’ll still be able to recognize those so-very American qualities in myself. I also hope that all the amazing French habits I have adopted will be wedged in there alongside. Maybe then, every time I visit home, I won’t have to worry about whether or not I’ve left it too long, whether the life I left behind me is too far back to retrieve. I’ll just know in that intangible sort of way that home is inside of me forever.

First published in Brit’mag, November/December 2010


Former Political Prisoner Roxana Saberi Speaks out

American journalist Roxana Saberi spoke at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota tonight about her experiences as a political prisoner in Iran. In January 2009, Saberi was charged with espionage by the Iranian government and spent 100 days in jail. Her book, “Between Two Worlds: My Life and Captivity in Iran” is just out, and she is on a worldwide tour speaking out about international human rights.

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Saberi was working in Iran as a freelance reporter and researching a book about Iranian culture when she was arrested at her home on spying charges. After being coerced into confessing, she was sentenced to eight years in prison. With the help of her parents and the media, Saberi was able to get her story out of Iranian prison borders and was finally released in May 2009.

While Saberi recognizes that her public presence as a journalist contributed to her release, she says that the majority of detainees are not always so lucky. Political prisoners in Iran can go months without anyone finding out about their arrest because, she says, “if you are a threat to national security, you lose your human rights.” That means no phone call, no rights to a lawyer.

Iran’s human rights record has taken a beating in recent months. In June, protests erupted across Tehran on the anniversary of last year’s disputed presidential election, resulting in police clashes across the city. And all eyes have been on the three American hikers detained in Iran after accidentally wandering from Iraq into Iranian territory last year. Sarah Shourd, the only female of the trio, was released last week after Iran faced intense scrutiny from the international community.

Saberi, who says that she has tried to turn her “challenges into opportunities,” hopes that Minnesotans will continue to fight for human rights at home and abroad. While she is unsure about her future as a journalist, she is extremely passionate about raising awareness.

“If we don’t speak out about [human rights],” she said, “violators will think they can continue getting away with it.”

Sarkozy ousts more Romas

As French President Nicolas Sarkozy deports another round of Romas, he is becoming increasingly entrenched in a hell of his own making. Calls of condemnation have poured in from the European Commission, while human rights organizations are calling Sarkozy’s actions an attempt to purify French culture, much like the Nazis did during World War II.

Much of the debate centers around the fact that most of the Romas – or gypsies – in France come from Romania and Bulgaria, which entered the European Union in 2007. As the European Commission explains on its website:

“There are between 10 million and 12 million Roma in the EU, in candidate countries and potential candidate countries in the Western Balkans. Roma people living in the European Union are EU citizens and have the same rights as any other EU citizen.”

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The reasoning behind Sarkozy’s deportations are shady at best, and an example of ethnic cleansing at their worst. He claims that Romas are only contributing to more prostitution, crime and violence in the country, and are a burden to the already overloaded social welfare system.

Regardless of the merits of these claims, Sarkozy is in a pickle. Not only are Romas EU citizens, but their wandering lifestyle is protected. As stated by French law, towns of a certain size are required to designate an area specifically for traveling folk and gypsies – or “gens du voyage” – where families have access to schools, churches, and medical and shopping facilities. While some of the people living in these camps are regular French-born citizens in search of a more adventurous way of life, an increasing number are from Eastern Europe.

Sarkozy is no doubt well-versed in French law, but much like Bush’s embarrassing Weapons of Mass Destruction campaign, is trying to pull the wool over our eyes. Perhaps it is his attempt to distract everyone from his very poorly-received retirement bill that recently passed, which will up the retiring age from 60 to 62 by 2018. Or maybe he’s still trying to disentangle himself from the whole Bettencourt affair, where he and his ministries seemed to have taken part in, or at least known about, the L’Oreal heiress’ massive tax evasions.

Or maybe Sarkozy is just trying to implement the most outlandish and shocking new laws before he is ousted from office in April 2012, which he is sure to be. In any case, the French president should plan to feel the wrath of not only his countrymen but of the international community in the days to come.

A Bad Case of the Wants

It is just another Saturday afternoon in Paris. I am being pushed along with the hoards of tourists near Opéra, admiring the sales of 30, 50, even 70 percent off! As fashionistas stroll by me effortlessly by the dozen, I grab my purse with a death-grip and keep on walking…

Madonna said it best when she sang, “’Cause we are living in a material world and I am a material girl.” Try as we might, we are all products of our culture, which in the West has come to favor consumerism and capitalism and all the nasty things that come along with them. Unless, of course, you are French, and then you might be able to proclaim socialism (which has become a serious gros mot in America) and weasel your way out of the blame-fest.

Lately, I can’t step foot into a Monoprix or Galeries Lafayette without enduring the wrath of insults about Americans and their spendthrift ways. As a friend said to me a while back, “I don’t understand you Americans – you make tons of money for the sole goal of spending it on more and more things.” Unnecessary, gratuitous things, is what she meant.

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Maybe my friend is right. Maybe we Americans are just gluttons for the latest new lipstick, speedboat or washing machine. But in the past few years, it seems that the French are catching up.

At a recent babysitting gig, I couldn’t help but choke over the inane amount of miniature plastic Petshop animals lying about the little girl’s bedroom. This was only seconded to her brother’s piles of Playmobiles, which threatened to burst out of the toy box. Granted, the family came from a certain moyen, but the consumer-driven sickness of wanting “more, more, more” seemed to be descending upon this innocent French household.

Cases of “The Wants” are even more prevalent in the French countryside, where home fix-ups and expansive yards give way to the ever-present desire for more useless stuff. A friend in the southwest told me she felt a thrill every time she made a purchase, whether it was a sparkly top for herself, the jungle-gym for her 2 year-old son or that new dryer for the garage. Some of the items still had the price tags on them months later, leaving little reminders of the sheer joy of spending her hard-earned cash.

In his article, “Consumerism and the New Capitalism,” American-turned-Switzerland resident Rip Cronk writes: “Consumerism is the myth that the individual will be gratified and integrated by consuming…. Self-worth is gauged by buying power.” Yet, the more we spend, the more empty we feel. We don’t ever seem to have as much as what’s-his-name next door, and the envy greens us from the inside.

The issue of Big Business and mass media controlling our consumer habits is not just an American problem anymore. A quick flip through French TV channels offers a bombardment of French and foreign-born ads hoping to catch you or your little one’s eye.  Advertisers have even snuck into the cinema with us, eating up our 10-euro ticket with over 15 minutes of commercials for everything from the local pizza joint to the latest Fanta flavor.

But maybe I should just hold my tongue and wait for better days ahead. After all, President Sarkozy has promised to eliminate TV ads from public channels by 2011. The phase-out has already begun, with ad sales dropping 5% in 2009 from its $4.6 billion of spending in 2008, according to ZenithOptimedia. The change is estimated to cut $700 million in advertising for state-owned stations, nearly 15% of France’s total ad dollars – bad news for business, better news for the average Joe.

So, while there’s still hope for the French, it would seem that we Americans are just too far gone to save. With our super-size mentality and increasing dependence on corporate America, all we can do now is hold on tight to our La-Z-Boys and giant slushies and hope for the best. Only our TiVOs can help us now.

Also published in Brit’mag

Getting Frenchified

So, you’ve been in France for a few years and pride yourself on being a self-proclaimed Francophile. You know exactly how baguettes are made, the entire route of the Tour de France, Edith Piaf’s birthday (down to the minute) and that there are precisely 32 bridges on the River Seine. But being a mere Francophile is one verre de vin short of being completely and totally French. How do you know when you’ve made it?

Perhaps you have a little mental checklist going for yourself already. Knowledge of the difference between “mûr” and “mur”? Check. French husband or wife? Got it. A black- and red-checkered caddy with which you bring home your market vegetables? Of course!

But you need to downsize. Think smaller. Much like what counts in love, being French is in the little things.

Take your kitchen, for example. A plethora of evidence lies here. You know you’re French when:

–       You actually use your knife while eating, instead of leaving it abandoned by the side of your plate (or worse, still sitting in the kitchen drawer). Bonus points if you’ve picked up your non-dominant hand off your lap and placed your wrists on the table in between bites.

–       You set the table with a mini spoon above your plate. You use this mini-spoon to eat anything from yogurt – always at the end of the meal, of course – to kiwi to cake. A fork at dessert? Blasphemy!

–       When eating fruit, you imperatively peel it first, using a small and graying paring knife circa 1943 to pull the skin off towards you in one fell swoop, while miraculously sparing your thumb from amputation.

–       You are able to talk about wine, Camembert and/or melon for hours upon hours.

Of course, the kitchen is just one aspect of French life and thus, just one indicator of true Frenchness. Let’s step out of the house and onto the streets to see how far you’ve come. Do you do the following things? If not, step to it!

–       Argue to the death for anything from getting the Post Office to stay open an extra two minutes while you mail your rent check, to receiving the five euros your boss still owes you from last month.

–       Say “Bonjour” upon entering any establishment and “Au revoir” when leaving, even when no one is around and/or it is quite clear that no one gives too hoots about your presence.

–       Pronounce “Le P’tit Wrap Cheese & Sauce Ranch” with a French accent at McDonald’s without even flinching.

–       Go coin scavenging. When your friend pays you back with a 10€ bill for that 6€75 Vogue magazine you bought her, you politely ask if she has 75 cents. When she gives you the look of crazy, you ask her if she perhaps has 5 cents. No? 70 cents, at least? Just like the many small businesses here, you just don’t have the change!

Of course, work is also a great place to become more French. Check this list to see if you’re almost there:

–       You can’t start your day without one of those teeny 70-centime coffees from the office vending machine.

–       For lunch, you obligingly bring a Tupperware container filled with last night’s meal. You learned the hard way that one time you brought a peanut butter sandwich and watched your co-workers look onward with disgust.

–       Once you’ve said “hello” to someone one time, you’re done for the day. No more courtesy smile, no more “Salut”. Unless there’s a necessary interaction, you walk by your co-workers with a breezy aloofness.

If you’re still in the dark about any or (heaven forbid) all the above rules, I suggest you invite yourself over to your French neighbor’s house for dinner immediately to get a real taste of life à la française. Or at least rent the latest Jean Reno film. Even Gerard Depardieu will do. But please do something. Your friends won’t tolerate your two-hour discussions about how the Notre Dame was built much longer. It’s not too late to save yourself and become really and truly French. Allez, on y go!

Originally published in Brit’mag.

Women in the workplace – we’ve still got it wrong

I’ve never taken the time to look into why feminism is described in waves: second wave, third wave… not sure which wave we’re on now… but the analogy seems to be apropos, concerning its presence in our daily lives. One day it’s here, the next day it’s not.

Take Gloria Steinem and the 1960’s and 70’s in general. You couldn’t even look at a pair of bell bottoms without discussing the ins and outs of who wore the pants in the family. These days, feminism is a bit more subtle, with people like Rebecca Walker and Elisabeth Badinter creeping into the picture, causing a minor ruckus, before disappearing for another five years.

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But lately, feminism — particularly the issue of women in the workplace — has been coming out from behind the curtains in more conspicuous ways. Maybe the journalists don’t even realize they’re running comparable stories, but it’s happening: from America to England to France, people are once again talking about where women fit into the professional picture.

In a May 8th issue of The Economist, we learn that a new French law will force the country’s top companies to name a certain proportion of women among their top executives. With the goal of 40% by 2016, France has a long way to go, where women currently hold only 11% of about 580 board seats at the 40 largest firms. And then we learn that the French are making a mockery of this law.

Bernadette Chirac, wife of former French president Jacques, has been nominated to the board of LVMH with the following credentials, according to the company: “She was female and as a first lady she supported fashion and regularly attended catwalk shows.” Well, that sure sounds like a match to me.

The Economist reports that bosses are taking the new law so lightly that many executives are planning to nominate their wives or girlfriends – women with little relevant experience and a pretty face, who will sit down and shut up and continue to let men take the reins. The magazine writes: “One boss asked a headhunter for photographs of candidates and said he would treat looks as his first criterion, ahead of industry experience.”

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What is so wholly maddening is the way the French press has attended to this issue, or not attended to it, as the case may be. Months ago, the new law was mentioned in a five-line blurb and then never again. Then, in a May 29th issue of Le Monde, we learn that Claude Chirac, the 47 year-old daughter of the former president, has resigned from her position as director of communication at Francois-Henri Pinault, PPR, without knowing why — but that mom Bernadette has (as we now know) accepted the position of administrator for LVMH. No details are given as to how or why Bernadette qualified for this position, nor what exactly she will do for the company.

Perhaps this situation is evidence of French culture, which is taught from a young age not to question things. From elementary school through university, young people sit in filled Education Nationale classrooms worrying more about which colored pen they should use while taking notes than whether to challenge the teacher.

Or it could be France’s male-dominated culture. Men still outweigh women in the workplace and while paternity-leave does abound (unlike in America), men are the breadwinners in most families.

Now, it’s all well and good to bash the other team but unfortunately feminism is one area where America can’t play the “We’re the best in the world” card. Women held 13.5% of top positions in Fortune 50o companies in 2009, just a few measly percentage points over the Frogs. And even those who are there are not getting the respect they deserve.

In Time magazine’s May 24, 2010 edition, “The New Sheriffs of Wall Street” piece examines the female power players in the U.S financial and political systems who are picking up the pieces of the recent Wall Street crisis – a crisis largely created by men. Sheila Bair, of the FDIC, became a notorious whistleblower on the economic downturn back in 2007, when she noticed that American banks were in trouble. When she tried to point out the issues, the response was hostile: “They were shocked and horrified,” she said. By the end of 2008, Bair was proven right. Twenty-five banks became insolvent and were taken over by the FDIC.

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At a recent event to celebrate women’s role in finance, U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner made reference to a headline he had read that said, “What if Women Ran Wall Street?” He responded to the crowd with a low-brow joke: “Now, that’s an excellent question, but it’s kind of a low bar… how, might you ask, could women not have done better?”

In effect, the men have mucked up Wall Street so thoroughly that only a woman can clean it up. After all, that’s what women do best, isn’t it? Cleaning? The Mother-Son analogy couldn’t be more poignant than in this very moment. Whether in a romantic or family relationship, women have earned the heartwarming stereotype of spending their lives tidying up men’s messes. And women often fall right in line with this grim picture, doing just that.

As the few final months of 2010 fleet away and we embark on a new decade, I’m hoping women in the workplace won’t be just another newspaper headline we ponder for a few days before chucking it into the bin. Like race and sexual orientation debates, feminism is something that needs to be discussed openly and often if we’re ever going to get out of the woods. So I don’t know about you, but I’m grabbing my surf board now so I’m sure to be ready when the next wave of feminism happens to sweep in.

Celebrate IDAHO

Today, May 17th, is a day to celebrate how far we have come internationally in accepting homosexuality. The International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia (IDAHO) remembers the struggles and reminds us not to forget what still needs to be done in the global fight for equality for all, regardless of sexual orientation.

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Visit IDAHO’s site to find out about events in your area, and wear your rainbow pin or sticker with pride today!