Watershed

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I was born and reared in Paris, of French parents. There are no immigrants in my antecedents. There are not even any in the lateral branches of my family, as far as I know. (I think I would know.) I never spoke English with a native English speaker until I was 18. I have been in the United States for more than 40 years now. I have lived in this country completely, utterly by choice. In the context of present political developments my American self feels the need to explain to the French youth I used to be what really happened. I have been trying to summarize it. I think I have got it, finally.

Initially, I spent one year in the United States, in California, when I was 18, on a student exchange program. It was not a great year for me, but I liked a lot of what I discovered. That included an open and flexible educational system that agreed with me more than did the constipated French system, where I had pretty much failed anyway.

Then, I came back to the United States when I was 21, to go to college, with no specific plan that made much sense. I could have gone home any time. One thing led to another and I graduated from a good university four years later. Immediately, I obtained an exciting job in France, largely on the strength of my American degree. After only one year, I returned to the United States for more schooling.

In the middle of graduate school, I was offered an even better position in Paris, in city planning. There was a bright future attached to that job, a good career, in conventional terms. Early on, I became uneasy with the amount of power attached to my position as a government contractor. Retrospectively, it seems to me that the uneasiness would not have arisen absent an American experience. Once more, I returned to the United States. I completed a doctorate and stayed.

Again, I could have gone back to France for good, at any point, before or after school. I was in no way stuck here. Incidentally, there would have been good reasons for me to return to my country of origin. My parents and my four siblings lived there. I liked the French countryside intensely, and I still like it a great deal. In my eyes it remains a model of the successful blending of natural habitat with human activity and human occupation. And, of course, I think that everyday French food is superior. Comparing it to the fare of the best restaurant I can afford in America is like comparing American rock & roll to French rock & roll.

So, why am I still in this country in my near-dotage? There are several reasons, some philosophically complicated. To a large extent, they have to do with our political system and its semi-conscious large-scale application of the principle of subsidiarity: decisions should be made at the lowest level possible, at the individual level rather than by the municipality, by the municipality rather than the state, and so on.

Subsidiarity is recognized as a commanding moral principle by the Catholic Church, and the EU enshrined it early on in its constitutional guidelines. Yet it’s ignored almost everywhere but in this country. The average well-educated citizen of France, unquestionably a democratic country, would not understand it if you gave a formal lecture on it. Here, it’s applied instinctively most of the time. A country with widespread application of subsidiarity is the closest thing we have to a libertarian polity. That’s outside of Somalia, of course.

Beyond this, there is the diffuse, unpresuming, and immense generosity of this society. It’s a hard fact that liberal groups are currently working to mask. I can summarize all of this with a tiny handful of facts.

It’s about the superiority of water in America. I don’t mean that the water from the tap was unhealthy in France; it wasn’t. It’s an old, nasty urban legend that the French drink wine because their water is bad. Besides, they practically invented overpriced bottled water with magical properties. The problem there was getting very hot water in abundance, and water in the form of ice.

In all my French childhood and teenage years, I never had a leisurely, luxurious, richly wasteful bath or shower. Hot water was always rationed. I discovered really long showers in really scalding water during my first year in California. Later, I spent some time in the French Navy, on an aircraft carrier. Hot water was not rationed there either, it’s true. But I couldn’t well choose a military career just because of the hot showers.

France is still, as I write, a country where in those picturesque sidewalk cafes, on a hot day, a cold drink includes only one small ice cube. If you ask for more ice, you get one more cube. That’s in ordinary cafés. In upscale establishments, they will spontaneously put two ice cubes in your drink. That’s if the server likes the way you look, of course.

The first time I had a glass of water in the United States, it was in New York City. I had just landed at the Port Authority from a studentship. It was mid-August, and the asphalt was soft. I had never felt hotter in my life. I entered a diner. I didn’t really know what a diner was, but I guessed I could get ice cream there. I sat at the counter, on a plastic-covered, one-legged stool. I had seen such counters in a couple of James Dean movies. Before I could gather up my hesitant English and order, an officious waitress plunked a big, tall glass in front of me. It was filled to the brim with large ice cubes. I thought she had mistaken the order that I had not yet given. Then, I was dazzled.

After landing in New York City, I went to live with a working-class family in California. No one there ever shouted at anyone not to use all the hot water. The supply was apparently inexhaustible.

I have traveled a great deal. The United States is the country where you can almost always use as much hot water as you want and where places of business voluntarily give you more ice cubes than you want, even before you can ask. I think it’s the only country like this.

But nowadays this happy immigrant fears for the future. Sinister forces have been unleashed and are trying to turn us into a 1950s France — without the countryside and without the cuisine. There is a French idiom that expresses well what it’s like living in France: gêné aux entournures. It’s what you feel when you are wearing clothing, especially a jacket, that’s too tight for your body, to the point where you cannot freely rotate your torso.

When you allow the government to interfere with simple market decisions, daily life quickly becomes like that: no department store shopping on Sundays, but meat and pastries are available, the first until noon only, and the latter until 1 p.m. Almost all stores are closed on Monday, except pork butchers. (If you are an observant Jew or a Muslim, you had better plan ahead.) Of course, the Louvre Museum has been closed every Tuesday, 52 weeks a year, for 50 years. That’s in a country where unemployment routinely tops 10%.

Living life under this kind of stricture, day in and day out, makes people sullen. Over-regulation also interferes with everybody’s ability to progress economically, and in ways that many understand. Sullenness and economic mediocrity in turn undermine one’s ability to be generous. After a while, otherwise good people tend to withhold everything, even water.

I fear I will die at my favorite coffee shop, on the morning of a brief, lukewarm shower, in front of a lukewarm soda.

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