29 December 2009

Holiday Reading: My Life in France

Books are some of the best gifts in my opinion, and I got three this Christmas.  It made gift time stupendously gratifying.  When I saw the crisp pages and book bindings, I squealed, jumped, and danced around.

My good friend L. generously gifted me with one of those books--a paperback volume of My Life in France by Julia Child.   I devoured it in 2 days.  Child and Prud'homme made me feel as if I was in France, not in my parents' home lounging around in my well-worn pjs.  Everytime I opened the book, I was transported to Paris, to that indescribable insane happy feeling of joie de vivre, living life with gutsy aplomb. 

I immediately wanted to read sentences or paragraphs off to whoever was sitting by.  Julia had such a fun, carefree approach to life--I found her immensely appealing, and the similarities between her and Paul and J. and I were encouraging.

I learned more about Julia and Paul and fell in love with their relationship.  They supported each other and you could tell that individually, they felt free to fully discover and pursue who they were truly meant to be.  Marriage didn't stifle or oppress them but provided the support and inspiration they needed.  They actually achieved the paradoxical yoking of individual journey and marital devotion.  With each page, I dove deeper and deeper into a love story that exuded warmth and hope.  Julia was an independent, confident, strong and passionate woman who could honestly say that she couldn't have become who she was without Paul.  Her story was so feminist...yet so domestic.  It defies categorization.  Their love story was a soothing balm to my sometimes cynical marital heart.

Julia lived in a different time and place--post World War II when American culture was a prized export and countries devastated by the war were only starting to think of becoming industrialized.  Child's France is a cheaper, more "primitive" France, viewed by Americans as dirty and not with the times.  Yet the expat communities are thriving, artists are getting by just fine, and jobs seem plentiful.  The dollar goes further and even though Julia says she became "extremely depressed" at their "meager government allowance," you can't help but think they are still living really really well.  Julia doesn't have to work, and Paul's salary still allows her to buy all the cooking gadgets she wants, trips into the country, and gourmet full course dining experiences every week.

Even so, Julia's accounts never left me feeling envious or regretful.  Julia was not one for wishful thinking or even sentimentality (she writes towards the end that her father's death made her relieved rather than sad and it would make trips to California easier), and I detected a consistent sense of gratitude, an acceptance of her limitations and the limitations of the world in which she lived, and an admirable resolve to always push ahead and truly live.

Another gift of the book was how it illustrated without a doubt the importance of place in the development and formation of a person.  Julia could never have been who she was without those years living and exploring in France.  In a smaller excerpt, Julia describes how three years living in Paris shaped her longtime editor, Judith Jones, as well.

Julia exudes an expat sensibility to the tee, a preference for living outside of America, and a recognition of how much place influences one's values and life choices.  Her words that Americans tend to choose comfort and business over deeper values struck a chord. Julia loved France because she felt free and could value people and a different way of life apart from the pursuit of monetary success and security.

In the last few years, after living in the inner city and scraping by on low rent apartments, I've come to value comfort over many other things which is one of the reasons why I'm living in a housing tract in Irvine surrounded by parking lots and not much else.  After reading the book, I made a commitment right there and then to live in a place that would influence and shape me in the ways that I wanted and needed--to be a more free person, engaged with my surroundings, experiencing new art and culture, and challenged to dig deeper and give from my true self.

Where is this place?  I'm not sure what's next.  I have some ideas.  One of them is France.

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