The calendar reads September and, at least for me, it already seems as though it is the month that immediately followed June. The summer has come and gone, almost as if it never happened. In fact, it’s little more than a distant haze, filed away somewhere to be recalled on grey winter afternoons. The French call this transition la rentree, the return, and as part of this return, there is, of course, a kind of renewal as well.
When I traveled in Europe this summer I tried to observe if the nations had come closer of turning the continent into some kind of unified entity. Some of the problems, like the adoption of a single currency or the removal of border controls, may be administrative nightmares, but ultimately manageable. Others, however, present much greater difficulties, the kind that may take decades to work out if they can be worked out at all. There is, just to cite one aspect, the sticky matter of national identity, which runs wide and deep and reaches to the very soul of each country.
It is possible or even reasonable to assume that these nations will ever actually think of themselves as Europeans first. Will they ever be able to put aside regional or national self-interest in favor of the greater good-the way, for example, that Southerners think of themselves as Americans first and Southerners second? Many people are still skeptical, believing that the threads of national character and personality are simply woven too tightly into the fabric of each country.
To understand the problem, it is helpful to look at the countries individually, to consider the distinct likes, habits, and eccentricities of each people. For what really separates the French from, say the Italians, is to a large degree the sum of the little things: the kind of food they eat, their attitudes about sex, how they drive, what they wear, the kind of entertainment they like, and their social customs. Though these things might seem trivial, the whole created by these small parts distinguishes one national identity from another. A German from an Englishman. Overall, there is probably less dissension over global issues than there is on what should be served at a dinner party.
Charles, after we had an in-depth conversation on the subject, shared with me a book that examines a piece of the French personality. Written by New York Times correspondent Richard Bernstein, Fragile Glory: aPortrait of France and the French, is funny, insightful, and deeply felt. Bernstein’s observations are based, primarily, on the time he spent as New York Times bureau chief in Paris. “For me the French have always had a special cachet as people that have made a powerful impression on the rest of the world,” says Bernstein, who has logged many years abroad reporting from Africa, Asia, and various countries in Europe.
“Because they have such an important global reputation, the French are often seen as abstractions rather than realities-among the abstractions are that the French are arrogant, stylish, they don’t like us, they’re anti-Semitic-and I wanted to penetrate the abstractions. It was an obsession of mine to get under their skin.” After reading the book, I can say that Bernstein has succeeded.
I also observed Clive settling into life in Europe with ease and confidence. Not as an isolated expatriate, but as an interwoven part of a whole (some) group of young people, that view borders as economic necessities, and languages not as barriers but something to be explored and absorbed. So, as the summer of 2009 comes to a close, perhaps the best renewal is this last paragraph.