by Jonah Raskin
Read Next Stop: France, by Jonah Raskin (the beginning of his Travelogue to France).
Also Paris I: Memories & Laughter
Then Paris II: A Night In The 19th District
And On the Road In Rural France
Keep going to Cold In Colmar — And Mythic, Too
And France Travelogue VI: 1789 And All That
(Swans - December 2, 2013) Are the French happy? Equally important, am I? And what does it mean to be happy? On the surface, the French seem happy. They smile, they tell amusing stories and jokes and they laugh a lot. The humor is often sarcastic and sometimes self-deprecating as in the case of Charles-Henri, the editor at a publishing house who showed me his shabby office building on a derelict street in Toulouse and quipped, "This is the heart of the prosperous financial district." A second later, he added, "There's prostitution here and black market activities, too." His friends, who were standing around him, all laughed. The joke seemed to be about the French themselves: the kind of satire they're very good at.
It was the end of my second week in France, and I came to the conclusion that the French were happy, but before I put my thoughts down on paper I decided to ask them -- not every single French citizen but my French friends and the friends of my friends. They all said, No, that the French were not happy. They were hateful, they were angry, and they were resentful.
If that's the case I think I can understand why. The French feel that foreigners are taking France away from them. English words are taking the place of French words. If something is cool, the French say, "cool." They use the same word that we use. American-style malls and highways are taking the place of French shops and streets.
Right now, I'm sitting in a café in a mall outside a small town where the mayor (a Socialist) was recently found guilty of embezzling and investing public funds -- for his own advantage -- and then forced to leave office. A Socialist with a Swiss bank account wasn't the kind of Frenchman I remembered or the way I wanted him to be. The right wing was growing in popularity and power. The newspapers told me that and so did my friends. Racism and xenophobia were on the rise.
Still, over the past two weeks, I have certainly been in cool places and met cool people and done cool things.
Some of the coolest people I have gotten to know are the anarchists in Bordeaux -- an old prosperous city on the Gironde River -- in a neighborhood where the streets are far too narrow for the narrowest of cars. The anarchists -- about 20 of them, mostly young, women as well as men, some North Africans in the crowd -- agreed that the French were born complainers, anxious about the future, and unable to appreciate how well off they are when compared with others around the world, even in the United States. The French safety net for the elderly and the sick was pretty good, my newfound friends explained. Those in need received help.
One Frenchman who had lived in Europe and in North America, told me, "In the United States, people think that the individual will save the society. In France, people think that the society will save the individual." Perhaps that's too simple a formulation to bear much weight, but it bears further examination. Take the Bordeaux anarchists who exist on their own, but who have also banded together to save one another and their way of life. They own an old four-story stone building with a basement and an attic, a bar, a lecture hall, a kitchen, and a bookstore. They inherited the building from a group of Spanish and French anarchists who bought it in the 1930s (at the end of Spanish Civil War) and they treat it like a family treasure, making improvements when they can and turning it into a neighborhood community center.
I had dinner with the anarchists, a dozen or us sitting around a makeshift table. It felt like a meal to give thanks, though not a Thanksgiving celebration. One of the anarchists (just one person, not a collective) had prepared the meal: en endive salad with a Balsamic vinegar dressing, a stew made from pigs' cheeks and carrots, fluffy white rice, half a dozen loaves of bread, and several cheeses.
After the meal, everyone helped to clean up, take down the tables, and to arrange chairs in a semi-circle in the lecture hall for a talk and a discussion about counter-cultures in France and the United States.
At this point I should probably add that these Bordeaux anarchists aren't anarchists of the deed. For them, anarchism means community control of all the decisions that affect the community, including work, food, housing and education. In American terms it's grassroots democracy.
After a free-ranging discussion, we stood around the bar talking in groups of two and three, then went to the home of Rene, 44, a native of Bordeaux who has turned an old factory into a comfortable living space for himself, his wife, and their three daughters. I spent the night in the bedroom of one of his teenage daughters who was kind enough to allow me to have a comfortable place to sleep far from my own home. The daughter had written on the door to her bedroom, in English, the words "Love Room." A psychedelic poster of Jimi Hendrix hung on the wall above her bed. I slept very soundly.
The next morning around the kitchen table, Rene made coffee and toast from one of the loaves of bread he had made that day. He also offered me some of his homemade boysenberry jam. When I asked him if he was happy, his face lit up like a Christmas tree -- one might say. "I'm very happy," he said. "I love my wife and my daughters, I love the work that I do, and I love my friends."
I was happy, too, happy that happiness had come to me, not by design, or because I deliberately sought it, and yet not purely by accident either. One decision had led to another, though I had not known at the start where my decisions and my journey would lead me. The airplane took me to Paris, the train from Paris to Toulouse, then by car from Toulouse to Bordeaux, one group of French friends leading me to another group of friends, the circle of friends growing larger and larger and yet without losing a sense of intimacy and individuality.
I might not be happy tomorrow or the next day, but I was happy in Rene's kitchen and in the street outside his house, the bright sun rising in the clear blue Bordeaux sky.
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About the Author
Jonah Raskin is a professor emeritus in communication studies at Sonoma State University in California and is the author of Field Days: A Year of Farming, Eating and Drinking Wine, The Mythology of Imperialism: A revolutionary Critique of British Literature and Society in the Modern Age, and For the Hell of It: the Life and Times of Abbie Hoffman. He lived and taught in Belgium in the 1980s. He is the editor of The Radical Jack London: Writings on War and Revolution. He also worked in Hollywood in the 1980s and wrote the story for the movie Homegrown. To learn more about Jonah, please read his entry on Wikipedia. (back)