Sunday, January 3, 2010

Thoughts on Falsehood

In the weeks and months before giving birth, I tried to cram in as much reading and thinking time as possible, naturally assuming that I would have no time once my firstborn arrived. As it turns out, I now have even more of an excuse to read and stare into space than ever before - breastfeeding, once past the tricky beginning phase, presents many pleasant, guilt-free opportunities to read novels and magazines cover-to-cover, and just reflect on life in general (when not staring at the wonder that baby is!)

One such epiphany that I had, while baby and I were listening to a French children`s song, has to do with the way I view the French culture, and in fact, every so-called romantic culture out there. As an imaginative teenager growing up in South Africa, I often fantasized about far-away places, and in particular the greatest art centers of the Western world: Italy, France, England and Spain. For years I dreamed about packing all my belongings into a small backpack and disappearing into the cities of Europe for a few months. And there was something about Paris that always painted a glorious image in my mind, of artists and writers sipping cappuccinos in beautiful outdoor cafes on tree-lined boulevards, somewhere deep in the heart of Paris. I harboured this fantasy until I actually visited Paris three years ago. It rained for most of the three days that I was there. Maybe it was the weather, or the fact that I was jetlagged and exhausted, or maybe just lonely, but somehow Paris was not as grand as I`d imagined. The first part of Paris I set my eyes on was an eyesore, the metro filled with the sort of people whom I wouldn`t want to run into in a dark alley. The Louvre, while impressive, was full of tourists snapping photos of every precious masterpiece (in New York they would have been thrown out for doing so) and there were more people surrounding the Mona Lisa than paparazzi around Angelina Jolie. Even Notre Dame Cathedral was not as imposing as I`d imagined.
On my last day, under a miserable sky, I roamed about the streets of Paris in search of something to do. I was wet and cold, and wanted only to go sit someplace warm, and not the typical French cafe where the waiters would bother me every few minutes . Finally, I ran into a Starbucks, a long, long way from home (which, back then, was New York). As I sipped my hot drink out of a paper cup, it occurred to me that I was making a mockery of myself - visiting an American coffee-chain in Paris! The irony! And all for the sake of something warm and familiar. To confuse you even more, the only reason I ever patronized Starbucks in New York was because the atmosphere reminded me of Europe!

But never mind my own experience - the image of France as a paragon of the peaceful life I imagined is far from the truth. Persecution and anti-semitism have tainted England, France, Italy and Spain for hundreds of years, and continue to this day. In Paris, Jews are afraid to venture anywhere with a visible skullcap on their heads. This is not a paranoia - I rest my case with Ilan Halimi, although there is much more to say on the matter. But it isn`t my purpose to make this entry political. My point is that despite all of the above, I still feel wistful every time I hear a French song, or watch a movie like Amelie. What is it about these false pre-conceived notions we Westerners have of places? It`s like willingly choosing to bury our heads in a fantasy. That is why the world adores the rock star, the movie star, and the super model - all of whom we have only known wearing masks, acting out that which isn`t real. We listen to popular old French songs by Edith Piaf and imagine a rosy night cafe scene, when the singer`s life and character were far from rosy.

All this makes me appreciate living in Israel, where somehow people are more down to earth, be it because of the merit of living in the Holy Land, the constant threat of war, or all the social issues of living in a fairly new state. So, if I still find myself longing for baseless things, at least I can acknowledge the fact.

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