Monday, August 1, 2011

Francophilia, Grecophilia and Other Passions

Why does one country fascinate me and another leave me cold? Why does my heart flutter at the mention of anything French, my spirit light up at the thought of a Greek isle, my muscles relax and my mouth water at the sight of an Italian taverna, but I feel little enthusiasm for discussing our upcoming visits to Berlin or Budapest? Is it because I know so much more about France and Greece and Italy than I do of Eastern Europe? Is it because I speak French? But wait -- I speak no Greek yet all things Hellenic appeal to my every sense. And while I can get by in an Italian restaurant, I don’t speak Italian. I often try to determine what it was that initially piqued my interest in France. It wasn’t simply that I learned the language. I took Spanish years before I started studying French and while I thoroughly enjoyed mis clases de espaƱol, once I walked into my very first high school French class with Mr. Stefanek, I was smitten. Mesmerized. Committed.

Every night on the News Hour, we listen to Russian history experts or post-colonial Indian specialists or PhD’s on Libya’s economy expound on their specialties and I always wonder what drew him or her to a specific field? Is it nature/genetic? Or is it nurture/exposure? Or is it something else? I often consider the possibility that I was a French peasant in a former life because of what seems to be my innate appreciation for all things French. I’m sure I wasn’t royalty because the flamboyant French court is definitely not my style. It’s amusing to think about, especially when I can connect some of my avocations to the life of a peasant: my love of gardening, getting my hands dirty, and making a plot of land my own, my affinity for the countryside and uncharted walkabouts, my powerful need to retreat from the crowds and sounds of the city to enjoy the landscape and go inward. I could spend hours in a museum taking in French medieval tapestry and learning about the stories behind them, not necessarily because I’d like to hang them on my walls but because I’m fascinated by the people who made them.

Would I like to visit just about every country and city in the world? Yes, absolutely. I would like to be able to imagine them when I read news reports and novels that are based there. But do they all make me breathe a little faster or sit up straighter when I hear their names? Do they all take hold of me emotionally? Well, no, not really. They appeal to me intellectually but don’t speak to my soul. Joe and I were lucky enough to go to Singapore two years ago (I was asked and funded to speak at a Southeast Asian book publishers meeting) and while I was thrilled to make the trip, I just didn’t have a feel for the culture. I certainly knew more when we left than when we’d arrived, and our brief visit piqued my interest such that I want to learn more about this diverse crossroads region, but it didn’t grab my heart the way France and Italy and Greece do. So, I’m still left with the question of why France? Why Greece? And why the other countries that take hold of me and won’t let go? Why do these places and their possibilities make me feel that my life will be incomplete without them? Perhaps I’ll discover that there are other countries, territories and cultures out there just waiting to seize me with their pleasures and treasures. Will it be Morocco? Turkey? Corsica? Spain? I can’t wait to find out.

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