I just moved my family from France to the United States. A motivation for writing this blog in the first place was to prepare myself for what I thought would be the inevitable: lots of questions about our reasons for leaving France after all of this time, and especially for moving to the United States. If you read the newspapers in France, you would quite frankly never move. But I don’t only read French papers; I read other ones too. And I think that the motivations for anyone’s moving “home” should never really come into question.
Alexandre, our 17 year-old, and I flew from Clermont-Ferrand, through Paris and Detroit, to Madison, Wisconsin. Going through passport control in Detroit, the controller asked me how long I had been in France. He meant how many days, weeks, or months. “14 years,” I replied. He looked up at me and smiled. “Welcome home,” he said. Then he added mildly, “I guess you speak French?” When we said yes, he continued “I hear that the French are not forgiving when you can’t speak the language well.”
Alexandre and I looked at each other and mouthed, “Busted.” And I said, “Actually, I think many people are quite happy when you just try.” He sensed that he had said something wrong and said kindly, “Oh, I suppose so. That is just what people tell you, you know.” We smiled back and said that we understood. Having felt that we had contributed to undermining clichés, Alexandre and I passed through and went to eat at the “Coney Island Deli.”
I grew up in Chicago (Illinois) and Wisconsin, so this is a real homecoming. And my transition was going just fine until I read some of the back issues of the New Yorker magazine. In her article entitled “A French feminist on motherhood,” Jane Kramer wrote that French philosophe and feminist Elisabeth Badinter gave a talk once at Princeton University during which she felt that she had been subjected to “total execution” by the Princeton faculty. If it is reported correctly, Badinter asserted that the French were sexier than Americans, better at sex; that American women wash too much, and are embarrassed by bodily odors and by oral sex. Apparently the Princeton faculty questioned her data. They asked, “How can you say these things off the top of your head?” Go see my first post, “I am Pragmatic and Empirical.”
I read the article, and I thought, “Welcome home.” I won’t get away from the cartisian thinking. But maybe I can learn to put it into perspective. And I can try to teach my own kids and my students at the University of Wisconsin to turn to data before spewing out cultural comparisons without evidence, understanding, or compassion.
P.S. That is the University of Wisconsin student union in the picture. You'll find me there sometimes.