Victoria Jelinek


XXI: Book Club

“My idea of good company is the company of clever, well-informed people who have a great deal of conversation.” Jane Austen

Geen-Tea-2I went to ‘Book Club’ this evening. Was loath to go after last night out at two bars with all the drinking, smoking and haphazard talk. Have been ‘twitchy’ and irritable all day as a result. My poor family. Self-recrimination ‘cause I’d had one drink more than my ration. Which was already really hard, given that we were out for hours. Self-recrimination ‘cause I’d been visibly irritated and uncomfortable with the drinking and smoking around me, and that’s not nice for those out to have a good time. Self-recrimination because I should know better than to put myself in the line of temptation. And yet. I didn’t want to get out of bed this morning. I’ve been near-to-tears all day. And, well, ‘Book Club’ is normally a large group of women in what is essentially a ‘book swap,’* drinking a lot of wine and chattering.

So I went late. And, I went only ‘cause it was a bonafide friend hosting it at her house and I wanted to support her. I brought a thermos of green tea and ginger to drink and in order to keep my hands busy and to keep me drinking SOMETHING while, ostensibly, everyone else drank copious amounts of wine. But it wasn’t like it usually is. For one thing, it was just our host, a dear friend of hers, another American who, while I may not agree with her politics, is an avid reader and I trust her judgment on books, as well as our host’s twelve-year-old daughter who is also a reader, and who makes short stop-action films. They were finishing dinner when I arrived, and the daughter had made a peach cobbler. They also weren’t drinking alcohol, just Perrier, and later, tea, so I didn’t feel tempted or preoccupied with others drinking. Best of all? The conversations were dynamic and interesting. We talked about films, and books we’d recently read, and television programs – both in French and English – and we talked about curricula – both French and American – and we talked about travel, and we talked about exercise ‘fads’ sweeping the globe. It was a good evening. Nothing was discussed in too much depth, as I would generally like to do, but, I am, arguably, too serious.  Ultimately, it was an entertaining evening.

What a happy surprise! There’s a moral here I’m sure. Perhaps it’s that I need to only hang out with people who enjoy talking about subjects I also enjoy talking about? Even if that means I am not as social as I generally like to be. There are several people in the valley whose company I find engaging. Perhaps it’s that I can’t be in bars? I suppose it’s like a junkie going to a shooting gallery. Certainly, I can’t be in them for too long. In my previous homes – Portland, New York, Los Angeles, London – I would have discussed the subjects we discussed this eve, such as literature, film, culture, education (and, ideally, some politics!) every time I met up with friends. However, perhaps in those cities it’s more obvious to find more people and situations in which to do so. I mean, my coterie of friends in each of the aforementioned places were filmmakers, writers, painters, musicians, artists, and conversational skill is highly valued as a source of creativity and collaboration. Moreover, these types of people are generally more expressive. Whereas where I live now, people are outdoorsmen. Mountain people. They like to climb, hike, ski, and maintain their fitness in the outdoors, preferably at altitude. That’s their passion and their focus. Not ‘wrong,’ just not me. While I appreciate the mountains, I am claustrophobic in them, preferring the sea always (“Homme libre, toujours tu chériras la mer”). As a result of both the environment and the community’s subsequent interests in general, I’m often self-conscious, frustrated, and isolated here.

More so now that I’m trying to substantially reduce my drinking, smoking, and drug-taking after 33 years of ‘caning’ it. Additionally, the social life I’ve primarily known here is centered on boozy lunches, afternoons, and dinners…at restaurants and bars…with those that flock to and spend a lot of time in them. However, for whatever reason, tonight I made the happy discovery that while the people and opportunities like this evening might be few-and-far between, there ARE, indeed, situations like tonight. I’ve experienced them here before. Evenings in which I will not spend the entire time ‘clock watching,’ leaning on, or ‘clucking’ for my ‘crutches,’ and can, instead, enjoy what I perceive to be good company. Is this a new direction? It could be. It should be. Is it evidence of a whole new me? Perhaps not. But, perhaps, it is a peek at what the future could be like here, for the remaining years I am here, and that’s a relief from the bleak perspective I’ve been viscerally feeling for the last couple of weeks.

*We don’t read the same book and then talk about it like a traditional “Book Club” does. It’s for Anglophone women to have a supply of reading material without having to buy books, which is a great idea in theory.

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December 11, 2018 IV – Identity

My identity was a big issue when I was a teenager, and I had a lot of questions, like: ‘Who am I?’ ‘Who do I belong to?’ But when I was still quite young, I decided that belonging is a tough process in life, and I’d better say I belonged to myself and the world rather than belonging to one nationality or another. Hiam Abbass

thirdcultureI feel great sentiment for the land in which I was born, the USA. I feel pride that I’m from the state of Oregon, and I appreciate my childhood there as something rather exotic to my present reality, and I’m grateful for it. But I also feel sentimental about the other countries I’ve lived in – Scotland, England, France – and empathy with other countries that I’ve known well, Denmark and Germany. Each of them in their unique ways approximates my notion of “home,” which I define as where you feel a sense of familiarity and love. However, I don’t feel nationalistic about any of these countries, meaning that I don’t believe one is ‘better’ than another, or feel prouder with my affiliation with one country over another–I appreciate each of them in different ways, just as I’m also critical of each of them. Even so, I’m identified as an American – with all of its constructs and connotations – everywhere I go because my accent defines who I am for others. This, despite my peripatetic background, or the fact I’m also a naturalized French woman, and even as I don’t share the values, ideas, and desires most Americans have faith in, such as the American Dream.

That said, any latent Yankee tendencies in me – forthrightness, warmth, enthusiasm, and the propensity to vomit my life story upon meeting someone – came to the fore when I moved to France. Over thirteen years in London, with no American friends, had prompted me to be more polite, more discreet, more modest, and dryer in my humour. In France, being direct, even confrontational, and more opinionated, seems appreciated by the natives. I’m not sure if this dormant Yankee in me came to the fore because I moved from England, a country in which I shared the language, to being a complete outsider linguistically in France and, therefore, I reverted back to my American manners once England was not influencing me daily. Or whether American and French comportment compatibility, as well as a shared, allied history, instinctively felt more complementary than English and French. What I have discovered over the last nine years in France, as I observe how people speak to me, or behave towards me, is that a person’s perception of an American and the USA, can loosely be classified into four distinct types:

The first are those that are automatically and openly hostile to me because I’m a foreigner. This includes the English expatriates who have disdain for Americans (always the case, not because of Trump and his administration).

There’s the pseudo political sophisticate. They think they’re well travelled because they’ve travelled outside of Europe, read some news, enjoy film and television, and speak two languages. In discussion, these folks will proffer an opinion on American politics that is extremely critical, not particularly discerning, and then apologize to me for saying whatever they’ve said as though I’m personally responsible for American society and its politics or I hold these views myself.

True sophisticates exist. They are those who have lived in a few countries, perhaps had a few long time lovers or spouses from countries other than their own, and consider another person’s nationality only as information for a contextual perspective of a given person. I’ve learned a great deal from their example, too, such as learning to deprioritize my own trigger response to a person’s nationality or accent. For example, not all English people are funny, nor do all Russians hide money.

The fourth type, though not so prevalent these days, is the wide-eyed American ideologue. They have holidayed in the USA or they’d LOVE to visit the USA, especially Disneyworld, New York, and Yosemite. They rave about how friendly Americans are. These folks regularly buy clothing and paraphilia with American slogans, flags, and iconic images that they think are “cool” or confirm their romantic image of the USA. They generally watch a lot of television, perhaps a few popular films, and aren’t “interested” in politics. They think it’s great that I’m a “Yank” but they’ll never see me as anything but this.

And, like most people, I imagine myself as unique and complicated, not simply relegated to a national identity because of my deeply entrenched accent. I’d prefer to have the reasonable judgement against me that I’m a shit mimic or lack any real talent for language acquisition.

All countries have their merits and demerits, but one (ideally) chooses to live in a place that suits your needs and values most. While I believe in the competition inherent in Capitalism, I think that without concerted regulation, enforcement, and fair taxation, it manifests into the perversion of inequality we see today. Capitalism is the bedrock of the USA, and what I’m about to say might mark me as a “red” or a “commie” to many stateside, which I’m not: I don’t believe your work defines who you are as a person. I believe ‘success’ is measured by the amount of time you have for leisure in relation to material needs having been met. I value reading books highly, and those that read them regularly are those that I believe are intelligent. I believe healthcare, access to a good public education, and safe housing are universal rights. I believe in modest portions of food at regular sittings, and I’m disdainful of fad diets. I believe in minimal consumption of goods, and collective conservation enforced by law. I believe smoking only kills the person doing it, and negative judgement about it indicates a type of puritanical moralism. Likewise regarding drinking.

Perhaps it was the influence of my educator activist parents who took me with them on their many travels and sabbaticals, and were  embarrassingly progressive throughout my life. Perhaps it has been the influence of my fair-minded husbands, German and Danish, respectively. Perhaps it’s that I read a lot. Perhaps its that I’ve lived, been educated, and worked in several countries over the entirety of my life and been influenced by a variety of people of all creeds, races, cultures, and nationalities. I’m not sure, but it’s a curious and sometimes frustrating phenomena when considered in light of rising nationalism throughout the world. If there is any nationalistic tendency in me (and please note that I’m suspicious of humanity regardless of origin) it’d be towards France. I deeply love French culture – its food, its literature, its history, its geography, its weather, its films, its general philosophy on life, and its approach to governance. However, even as I’m French in spirit and hold a French passport, I will never sound like a French person and consequently I won’t ever be truly accepted as one of them. I will always be l’étranger.

My son, however, who has neither my propensity towards self-absorption (other than the normal level accompanying his seven years), nor the tendency to “overthink,” has a slightly different reality. One parent is Danish, one is American French. He speaks Danish with his father, English with me, and French at school and during his extracurricular activities. Additionally, when he speaks English, he has a unique accent – he doesn’t pronounce his “th’s” as English speakers do, his vowels vary between the French as well as the English expatriate influences, yet his dialogue is interspersed with American idioms. Recently, a teacher of his called together eight little boys from his class, including my son, who had been harassing others on the playground in order to have a conversation with them about the similarities and differences between people and why we should appreciate these contrasts. She told me later that each of the boys, when asked what their respective nationalities are, adopted their parents’ nationalities: “I’m German,” “I’m Italian,” “I’m Swedish,” “I’m English,” etc., despite the fact that most of them had been born and were being raised in France. My son was the only one who said “I’m French.” Not Danish, as his father is, or American, as I am also, and despite holding these passports, too. France is the country he unequivocally identifies with. In fact, during the World Cup 2018, France was playing Denmark in one of the quarterfinal games and my son’s father wanted him to wear his Danish football costume. Being considerate, my son did so, but at one point, out of earshot of his father, he told me that he felt “strange” wearing Denmark’s uniform when he actually wanted France to win the game: “You see mommy, I don’t know Denmark or the USA…yes, I’ve been to these countries and I have family in these places, and that’s something, I know…but I really only know France…and I really want to wear France’s football uniform.”

Arguably, my son’s a potential nationalist and is being indoctrinated to France’s mores given his environment. But I doubt this, given his parentage and the perspectives that provides. And, I hope, he’ll live, study, and work in other countries, garnering more information and consequent insights than even I will have experienced because I do not have multiple languages natively. But my point remains: my son is viewed as a foreigner by the French given his parents, and viewed as a Dane or an American depending on who the (other) expatriate emigrant is, but he, himself, does not accept any of this. Similarly, I may have a strong American accent that creates the impressions and judgements of others about me, but this is not primarily how I see myself.

In the interest of exploring nationalism and identity, I’m going to start asking people how they define themselves & others and why – watch this space.