Monday, September 19, 2011

Professor Read's Reflections on Our First Three Weeks in Nantes

"Everything leads me to believe that they are not from the same nation, and judging by the differences in their manners and their seeming characters, one soon realizes that Pachacamac allotted them very different portions of those elements from which he formed human beings."

Tout me fait juger qu'ils ne sont pas de la même nation; et à la différence de leurs manières, et de leur caractère apparent, on devine sans peine que Pachacamac leur a distribué dans une grande disproportion les éléments dont il a formé les humains. 

Françoise de Graffigny

Such are the initial observations of the French as told through Françoise de Graffigny's heroine, Zilia, in Lettres d'une Péruvienne [Letters from a Peruvian Woman, 1747]. A strange lot, these French. Something other than human, perhaps. They have an entirely foreign character, different manners and seemed to have gotten the short stick on a number of more civilizing traits. To be fair, Zilia's consternation is completely reasonable: she's been twice kidnapped, first by the Spanish, then the French, and the storms at sea have left her rather green at the gills.

I've chosen Graffigny's novel as an entrée into the study abroad experience as a way of making explicit some of the thrills and spills of encountering new cultures. I have been amused and touched by the reactions that some of the students have posted on the course website--many, while not feeling transported here against their will--are living very poignant, often emotion-filled days as they struggle to navigate new ways of living and seeing the world. 

Students visit the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Nantes

First and foremost is language. Graffigny's novel, while a robust critique of contemporary French society in all its inequities, is also a not-so-thinly veiled condemnation of the status of women and learning. Language, writing and study are central to the heroine's assimilation (or lack thereof), just as their privation is felt by many of Graffigny's female contemporaries. Zilia is certainly not illiterate, but her manner of writing--quipus, or texts knotted into strings--is as foreign to French script as one could imagine--"These knots strike my senses and seem to lend greater reality to my thoughts." She then laments of life in France: "My strange fate has robbed me of everything down to the pleasure that the unfortunate take in recounting their troubles." As my colleague Joe Hall echoed in a poignant and very widely-shared sentiment: "I am exhausted. I am working really, really hard all the time to be able to talk like a CHILD." Joe doesn't give himself quite enough credit, but the sensation of inarticulateness is one that we all share as second language learners. I have been studying and traveling in France for 30 years and still come up short when reaching for certain confidences or shades of meaning that evade my grasp. We find respite, however, often in the unspoken, unwritten ways of simply being human with other humans: laughter at a rain-soaked adventure; tears on the anniversary of 9/11; shared anger at the byzantine bureaucracies that persecute both French and foreigner alike: there is an indecipherable form and an endless line for all who need a stamp, or ticket or wifi connection.

Zilia's lot is also defined by unrelenting scrutiny. She is constantly under surveillance and assumptions are made about her that obtain, often, to the expectations of her hosts/captors and not to her personal experience or will. Our host families are generous, engaging and curious, and part of the awkwardness of cultural explanations has clearly to do with language. But much of it is about negotiating broad generalizations about one's culture of origin without falling into stereotype. The French families have proven very curious and probing about ethnic origins (interesting for a society in which it is illegal to record such statistics for official purposes) and quite reserved on issues of religion. I was asked quite directly from a host parent if she were allowed to even mention religion, a query informed, clearly, by a nation with an extremely contentious debate over separation of church and state particularly with regard to Islam. Our international and cultural diversity is a great strength, providing wonderful openings into what it means to encounter France from multiple perspectives: Saudi, US, Ecuadoran, Canadian, Jamaican, Haitian. The most confounding culture to explain, however, may well be that of the small liberal arts college experience so far from the pre-professional focus--and largely state-sponsored financial realities--of the French system! Try as we might to amass the vocabulary necessary to explain this--and health care and our treatment of the former chair of the International Monetary Fund--we inevitably fall short but keep trying.

Finally, Zilia's story is highly--one might feel overly--determined by romantic longing. Graffigny very consciously plays with the reader's sentiments with regard to passionate, romantic love as Zilia knots, and then pens, letter after gushing letter to her beloved Aza. Aza and Zilia, A and Z, poles apart, linked, tellingly, by Zilia's talents as a compelling narrator of their doomed love. While perhaps romance of this sort may visit some of those on the trip, there is the far more universal romance of cultural encounter and all of the thrill and discovery that it can entail. All of us come with expectations of what marvels might await; French society can fulfill these pretty successfully and immediately with but one trip to the local market or patisserie. But there are other romances that will be revealed and told in both spectacular and intimate ways, and I hope that we can, each of us, find ways to convey them in order to make better sense of this experience and of our own ways through it. 

We all sampled these French patisseries for Andrew's birthday

The end of Letters from a Peruvian Woman is, to my point of view, stunningly and beautifully understated. Zilia is finally reunited with her beloved Aza, and, sadly, things do not turn out so well. He has strayed and has finally made it to Paris just to break up with her. Ouch! Déterville, her protector and provider since her "rescue" from the Spanish, thinks that maybe his crush on her can finally be consummated. Not so. What Zilia wants is a deep friendship and time and space in abundance to read, write and contemplate life--a romance of the mind. Kind of like Françoise de Graffigny, but that is another story... I wish for us all such excitement but also piece of mind as we navigate the language hurdles, the unrelenting scrutiny and the awe-inspiring, unexpected outcomes along the way.

Our first dinner together at a crêperie in Nantes
--Kirk Read

1 comment:

  1. Professor Read, Julia Sylla (Phelan) sent this link to a bunch of us via Facebook, and what amazing memories it brought back of our semester in Nantes in 1997. It's hard to believe that our Bates ten year reunion was just this past year, and now somehow we are the ancient alums commenting on this new-fangled thing called a blog.

    -Nancy Kraemer (Brown)

    PS--I'm friends with my host mom, Monique Duchene, on Facebook!