Bienvenue à Saint Jean. Tu es maintenant perdu.

18 Nov

When French people ask me what exactly I’m doing here in France, I am obliged to explain to them the enigma that is Saint-Jean-d’Angély.  As every third town in this country starts with the two words “Saint Jean,” and no one outside a fifty or even thirty kilometer circumference could guess which Saint Jean I’m referring to, I always hasten to add to my explanation, “On est un peu perdu,” an expression which translates as, “we (we being the inhabitants of Saint Jean, or Angériens, as we and no one else call ourselves) are a little lost.” 

In other words, Saint Jean is in the middle of nowhere.  In a place as small as France, all distance is relative; but generally speaking, the French don’t move too far.  This deep-seated habit is changing, thanks to daily or weekly commutes on the part of teachers, SNCF employees (SNCF is an acronym for the nationalized train system…a fascinating beast which I intend to explore later on),  and many others, and young French people who relocate to Paris or even farther abroad for work.   It is due to its people’s tendency for immobility, however, to which is owed the rich and gape-worthy patrimoine  (patrimony) of France.  When people move all over their country, restlessly, endlessly, pointlessly, from one coast to the other, how will they ever have the time and energy to establish a sense of identity intrinsically linked with any one place and moreover, with their family’s and even ancestors’ history in said place?  I am sure no average American under the age of 40 has any idea what I’m referring to.

Observed advantage number one of living in France (not that I’m at all setting myself up to compare life in France and the United States — but it’s always nice to have a frame of reference, in case I ever do decide to uproot permanently from the American West) :  one has the opportunity to develop a profound, subtle knowledge of a very small, very particular, and sometimes very peculiar, place.  As a side effect, one may actually approach knowing oneself.  Isn’t there an entire field of study concerned specifically with the relationship between identity and place?  The University of Montana certainly has more than its fair share of alternative, earthily-titled classes that would suggest so.  But in all fairness, in our society’s current state of instability and uncertainty, the value of consistency and self-knowledge — of a consistent self-knowledge — may soon be coming back into vogue.

Although Saint Jean may be ” un peu perdue,” someone living here (as long as that someone has fortified French blood running strong through their veins)  may not necessarily be lost at all.

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2 Responses to “Bienvenue à Saint Jean. Tu es maintenant perdu.”

  1. Ann Matney December 4, 2009 at 2:07 am #

    I so identify! There’s something in American culture, individualism I suppose, that ignores our need to be known and understood in the larger script: family, community, nationality. It’s like our American calling card is “How I am different from others” and my ethical expectation is that my rights extend to the point at which yours begin. So, then, where do we intersect? When I lived in Italy, on the other hand, there was an understanding–initally a jolt to my seventeen year old self–but at any rate, an understanding that we were people operating within a larger, tacit framework of meaning. There was a deep, common agreement about how things were done. (Cappuccinos till ten a.m. and espressos thereafter…it seems simple, yet, I came to find it comforting. In fact, I found it a welcome reprieve from the ventis, the caramel frappucinos, the hibiscus scones, and on and on…always chasing the newest, biggest, brightest thing, is…exhausting.) When I returned home from my year abroad I longed for the simplicity. The commonality that had been embracing me. I didn’t find it stifling; I found it calming. Yet I know, contrariwise, Italians (and perhaps, French?) can find Italian culture highly stratified (it is) and culturally auto-censuring. The group, the individual, we need them both. Maybe the perfect pitch is an American in Paris, or Saint Jean. Anyways, thanks for your reflections, Lindsay. They stimulated some conversations I’ve wanted to have myself.

    • lindsayjae December 4, 2009 at 8:27 am #

      Yes; I can’t speak for French people obviously, but I get the feeling from my friends’ and colleagues’ comments, that it might be a bit the same as the Italians. France does have a highly stratified, centralized, and in many aspects, still highly traditional society/culture/bureaucratic framework. This generates a lot of complaints on the part of its people; on the other hand, I think they secretly love it (or not so secretly, sometimes). Their culture, their history, is truly a part of their identities, even if they sometimes express abhorrence for that fact. It’s something that, in general, I cannot identify in myself when it comes to American culture and history, and certainly not the American government (though I do get incredibly defensive when French people presume to correct me on my country’s own history and political theory…I am a history student, after all; I do know a little bit, if not everything).
      Hibiscus scones..yes, I can see how this could be a problem. I mean, seriously, what the hell?

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