A Lasting Lessons Across Cultures: Community Counts

To travel cross-country in France is to find a fantastic meal, a great view, a medieval ruin, a special museum exhibit, a sweet mountain trail. To live somewhere unfamiliar, however, as isolating as it can sometimes be, is to pry open a culture's door just a crack, to begin, just a bit, to belong.
07/02/2014 09:51 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017


It's hard -- perhaps impossible -- to wrap six months overseas in a neat bow.

This I promise: I won't bore you with "Five Ways to Find Friends in France" or "Six Ways to Be Smarter in Learning the Language of Love." Living in another culture, we've learned, is lot more nuanced than that.

Over the last six months, my wife, Kathy, and I have traveled several thousand miles in France, much of it on back roads. Our past month alone has mixed sightseeing and reporting through the back country of Ardeche and Haute-Saone, the vineyards of Beaujolais and Burgundy, the elegant cathedrals of Alsace and the alpine trails of the Chamonix Valley.

My most compelling memories, however, remain grounded in the place we came to call home. It's no accident we returned to Aix-en-Provence on our last day before boarding the plane back to Boston, no accident we walked through the old city as we did just about every day from January through May.

Living in Aix during those five months, we had the rare chance to embrace a different concept of travel. It meant staying in one place and engaging a new culture and an unfamiliar language, making sense of different societal norms, and becoming interested in a community, its style of life, and its sense of heritage and history.

In the end, it will be our time in Aix -- most of it without a car, our days filled with decisions little more significant than from which vendor we should buy our fresh vegetables -- that will live within me, sustain me through the inevitable bumps of life.

To travel cross-country in France is to find a fantastic meal, a great view, a medieval ruin, a special museum exhibit, a sweet mountain trail. It's fun.

To live somewhere unfamiliar, however, as isolating as it can sometimes be, is to pry open a culture's door just a crack, to struggle to make sense of what that person across the counter is saying (in French), to begin, just a bit, to belong. In its way, this kind of travel is much harder. In its way, it's more special, too.

It is these experiences that led me to tell a colleague, who recently asked whether we're eager to return home, "not really."

Don't get me wrong. I've missed our children, our grandchildren, our dog, American music, baseball, singing loudly, even biting into a good hamburger or hot dog. At our best, we Americans are a bit rowdy and irreverent, challenging and caring. We slap each other on the back and hug, shout and sing, play sports and act silly. But if I could bring all that to France, from time to time?

I might have never returned.

I don't want to romanticize life in France too much. The country surely has its share of warts and troubles. We arrived in January to news that a not-so-funny comedian named Dieudonnᅢᄅ was leading his fans in reverse Nazi salutes in front of Jewish synagogues. We left Aix in May after the far-right National Front party scored a big victory in the elections for the European Parliament. Like members of America's Tea Party, many in France long for another day -- one in their imagination, anyway -- that's not coming back. That can be dangerous.

But even the most reflective and philosophical of the French -- and this is a land of philosophers -- can be tough for a foreigner to befriend. They are often more careful and controlled in their day-to-day interactions than Americans. Step on a landmine of French politesse, as we did on our first sabbatical here seven years ago, and it can be really hard to mend a relationship. Americans are much quicker -- if anything, too quick -- to accept an "I'm sorry" and move on.

But as we've gained modest ability in the French language, we have found the French to be embracing, eager to engage and capable of remarkable acts of kindness, such as the Alsace entrepreneur who arranged a private organ recital for us in his local church; the friend-of-a-friend in Beaujolais who took us into her home for a night when we couldn't extend a guest-house booking; the language teacher at our school who three times showed us her city of Marseille; and our landlady, who carved time to speak French with me, frequently suggested places to visit, and gave us a gift, and a lift, when we left.

That is the France in which we participated. There also is the France we observed, one that's not always so easy for a stranger to enter. It values history, regional heritage, common outdoor space, and, perhaps above all, family.

There's much we Americans can learn here.

"Go West young man," counseled American journalist and author Horace Greeley. We have always prided ourselves for living in a country primed to move on to the next frontier. Our history celebrates "elbow room," the individual, the conquest of the West.

But today, with the frontier a thing of the past, we too often twist those values of individual freedom into the empty belief that bigger is better. The more we acquire, the more we want. We build energy-consuming monster houses that show how well-off we've become -- and wall off community. Even as the divide between the very rich and everyone else grows, much of the 99.9 percent still looks with envy and a certain amount of desire at the masters of the universe, the Wall Street fat cats who lost touch with anything but their power and toys a long time ago.

We celebrate, too, the culture of youth, and, when it begins to fade, pay for tummy tucks, plastic surgery, Botox and all other means of making believe we're still young. Old is an ugly word in the United States. We rarely utter it about ourselves. We hope others won't think it of us that way either. Because the old, for the most part, are isolated or ignored.

Aix-en-Provence is a wealthy city. It has its share of fashion-plates who dress head-to-toe in leather through the winter months. But that, to me, is where the parallel ends.

Here we've seen grown sons walking arm-in-arm with their mothers in the market. We've seen men stop in mid-street and plant light kisses on the cheeks of friends. We've seen multi-generational families gather in parks. And older couples walk hand-in-hand, dressed not merely elegantly but often with a bit of sensuality, reflecting a confidence borne of the fact that they remain very much a part of the culture and daily life regardless of their wrinkles.

Time matters -- time to stand and talk in the marketplace, time to sit and engage in animated conversation in an outdoor coffee shop, time (heaven forbid) to read. Yes, the body snatchers -- the ones in our cell phones that people never look up from as they walk -- have come to France, too. But in much smaller numbers and much less oppressive ways.

The French love to engage. And if they are opinionated -- and they surely are -- those opinions typically aren't empty. I can't speak for a country, but Aix is a city of bookstores and news stands. As we traveled, we met businessmen who seemed the antithesis of the American fat cat, too. Some were fifth- and sixth- and seventh-generation family business people more concerned with customers whom they also called friends than with making big bucks. Others were trying to save or restore centuries-old crafts, the archaeology-buff turned executive -- not to get rich, but to revive a wool mill in Ardeche; the artisan bakers who use no additives and practice their craft in full view of customers; the textile entrepreneur with a passion for regional threads made from hemp and nettle and a penchant for quoting historians and philosophers. All of them had passion rooted in something much deeper than profit.

I've been frustrated more than once with the limits of my fluency and comprehension in French. Too often I've struggled to keep up my end of the conversation. But I found -- whether talking to a market vendor or the man we met who is trying almost single-handedly to save Alsace's textile industry -- that conversation never lagged because the person across the table lacked something to say.

We in the States can learn from that. Conversation is its own art form. It takes thought. It takes knowledge. It takes time. And it takes engagement in something more than a 140-character tweet.

As I return home, I'll remember our daily walk through the ancient and narrow streets of old Aix. I'll remember the vendors, singing greetings to customers in Aix's market, the beauty of the vines of Beaujoulais, the majesty of the Alps in Chamonix. I'll remember the beach in Cassis, a moonlit 65th birthday over the Mediterranean in Nice, and always Paris, with its style, its grace, its magical Seine.

But what I'll remember most are the people, their interest in understanding and explaining their culture, their realization that today's generation had its roots in generations far back in time.

What I love about France is that life isn't just what happened yesterday or today. Neither the past nor those growing older are discarded. They are part of life. A sense of continuity matters. And that recognition, I suspect, is where community across generations starts.