My German grandfather once told me, “On revient toujours à son premier amour.” I understood just enough French to know what he meant was “the first cut is the deepest.”
France was my first major country crush. I had seen other countries before — fooled around a bit with Mexico, made extended eye contact with Canada and shacked up with Ecuador — but when old France stole my young heart she never let go.
Like any creature of great beauty one loves France in spite of her imperfections. France is as much defined by her irresistible allure as her glaring flaws. (Smoking, to name just one. Colonialism, Vichy and resurgent racism and anti-semitism, to mention others.)
I know my love is unrequited. France doesn’t ️ me back. I don’t expect her to. Am I stuck in an abusive relationship?
Given what happened to members of my own tribe during the occupation, perhaps this isn’t love at all. It’s Stockholm Syndrome.
Love isn’t blind, it just overlooks deficiencies. France’s bi-polar history is both glorious and shameful. Her personality unpredictable; sometimes warm, often distant. She is both muse and monster. Approach either at your peril.
And many do. France remains the world’s number one tourist destination, welcoming over 80 million people annually while her own people struggle under the burden of supporting her looks and lifestyle.
France celebrates her unique mixed salad of peoples, yet struggles to accept the newest arrivals. In contrast to her self image of openness and tolerance, French history is rife with persecution of minorities from the Huguenauts to the new have-nots.
France has a formal, ancient and almost unapproachable beauty. She is the mother of so much art, science and philosophy that entire graduate schools are dedicated to untangling her contributions.
France is the intellectual mother of the American revolution but lately we’ve grown apart. Does Maman Marianne still stand for liberté, égalité et fraternité? Does Uncle Sam still defend our inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness?
Do any of us, nations or people, ever live up to our ideals? Heroes are hard to find in history and at home. There are devils in France’s details, but, as Paul Simon says, there are “angels in the architecture.”
The devils may be hiding in plain sight, but France’s angels still radiate a special Je-ne-sais-quoi that keeps me coming back.
R.S. Gompertz is a native of Southern California who currently lives and writes in Seattle. He recently completed a tour of Mexico and South America during which he spent several weeks in Cuenca. His most recent book, “Life’s Big Zoo,” is available on Amazon. For more information about his life, work and travels, click here.