• James Eric Fristad

But do I feel French?

I do like it here, very much: evidences of history abound, the Sud de France climate is possibly a little better even than San Diego's. The (older) buildings here retain their dated architectural mystique, and the shops somehow manage to have interesting stuff in them---stuff, or at least variations of stuff, that you have never seen before but somehow like the look of. The food is often marvelous, the wine far beyond marvelous. There's a pride in localized style that I haven't seen elsewhere: it marks the Camargue Region's untamed gypsy-like history. Imagine music of Georges Bizet's opera Carmen floating on the edges of your consciousness but, instead of elegant divas hitting the high notes center stage and heroic guys striding around the scenery singing glorious tenor- or baritone-range arias, your freshened imagination must now overflow with small white ponies ridden in search of ferocious black bulls, out in the salt marshes, while brilliant pink flamingos float overhead with preposterous legs trailing ... all happening out there in the salt marshes with nary a serious tree in sight. Here and there are centuries-old towns whose mothers weave bright patterned garments still, whose men sip pastis together in the evening and talk their quiet provençal dialect. It is a vibrant place, often violent, passionate.

It's quite a change from my vision of the poised and elegant Frenchman: nose in air, punctilious of speech, insisting on only the finest items in his life. Which are of course French items. Both extremes are arguably correct: from the deep southern inhabitants near here, whom I am rather in awe of, to the northern ultra-civilized, on whose cuffs I always imagine bright white lace fluttering. I think I'm being only a little unkind.

I am not enough of a foodie to truly appreciate the nuance of culinary extravagance here. And eating out is a bit expensive for my own budget: I would rather mainly cook my own semi-boring foodstuffs, bought with an always happy risk-of-unknown at the neighborhood market---and stay a month, say, than regularly eat at Chez Jacques or wherever and stay but a week.

Inevitably I find myself comparing the French with the Italians. I have more conversation-skills here in France than I think I could ever muster among the populace of that land-mass boot to the south. Took a mere two years of French as an undergraduate nearly 60 years ago, but somehow it must have been the right time, and a remarkable amount of vocabulary is still lodged inside, with grammar. Maybe it's me "waxing old" or maybe it's that the Rosetta Stone app always finds me bored to tears ... but Italian has been really hard to assimilate. Maybe the challenge means I need to find another Rowene to sit by.

We rode shoulder to shoulder in companionable silence, on the TGV from Nice Ville to Marseille. A classic belle jeune fille (curled brunette hair, wire rim glasses, intense eyes, a complexion to die for---and a completely unaffected manner) studying papers furiously, then shuffling and putting those papers back into her blue folder and digging out others. Writing some wise notes-to-self then arranging that paper where it belonged. While I was busy not staring (I never, ever would embarrass such a creature) I noted some chemical formula jotted down, maybe 15 or so characters in length. Chemistry or somesuch? The thing is, we did talk a little in French and far less in English, as we rolled across all those kilometers. And I found myself pulling out words from mental crevices that I had long, long forgotten. Those simple bits of vocabulary popped up where needed and I was amazed at how comfortable communicating actually was. It was the need to converse, I think, with a real (and really enigmatic but in a natural way) person that drove this sudden genius. So maybe if I began commuting in Italy seated beside a charming young Italian woman, the pieces of vocabulary, once studied, would stick.

[Postscript. We both got off at Marseille's main train station, and talked a bit longer on the way to our separate destinations. I asked if she was perhaps a student? Oui, c'est ca. And studying for what career, if I may ask? Une surgeon. Whoa.]

And yet even considering that single conversational exception, I am certain that I have more Italian culture in my soul than French. There's a brusqueness in France, even here in the laid-back South, that's hard to relax in the presence of---a transactional/non-generous mentality that niggles at my comfort, my ability to assimilate.

It is painful to draw this conclusion, but there it is: these difficult people remind me of my neighbors at home. But without the accent.

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