Alice Kaplan writes about why, despite her long struggle with the language, she loves to speak French:
I go back and forth in my thinking about my second language. Sometimes I think, it’s only the wealthy students who get French; it’s only an expression of their class privilege. My privilege that I went away to Europe when I was fifteen and the shape of my mouth and the sounds going in and out of my ears weren’t frozen into place yet. An accident of class. Or, I think, why have I confined myself to teach in this second language, this language which will never be as easy as the first one? Why have I chosen to live in not-quite-my-own-language, in exile from myself, for so many years— why have I gone through school with a gag on, do I like not really being able to express myself?
Then something will happen, in the classroom, and I’ll see this French language as essential in its imperfection: the fact that we don’t have as many words is forcing us to say more. The simplicity of our communication moves us, we’re outside of cliche, free of easy eloquence, some deeper ideas and feelings make it through the mistakes and shine all the more through them.
In French class I feel close, open, willing to risk a language that isn’t the language of everyday life. A sacred language.
French Lessons: A Memoir
Originally posted Wednesday, May 15th, 2013
In an excerpt from Of Many Lands, I describe my difficulty in finding a place for myself in my passport country:
The first year I am in Washington—I am 14 now—I spend each weekend earning money for a planned summer trip back to Holland. I am determined to go back, even though most of my friends have left. The second year in Washington I spend thinking about Borneo, the place my father has been assigned and for which he leaves half-way into my school year, the place we will move at the end of the year. It is as though I never quite put my feet down in Washington. Washington is a place my family lives in between the REAL places. Finally, when I am in my late twenties, as I discover landscapes I love, dig into a field of work, and forge fast friendships, the U.S. begins to feel less like a movie set.
What is your relationship to your home country? Is it your REAL country? What have you done, or can you do, to make some place your real country? Reflect on this.
Originally posted Wednesday, May 8th, 2013
Czeslaw Milosz on Americans and Europeans (pre 9/11):
I walked the streets of Chicago and Los Angeles as if I were an anthropologist privileged to visit the civilizations of Incas or Aztecs. Americans accepted their society as if it had arisen from the very order of nature; so saturated with it were they that they tended to pity the rest of humanity for having strayed from the norm. If I at least understood that all was not well with me, they did not realize that the opposite disablement affected them: a loss of the sense of history and, therefore, of a sense of the tragic, which is only born of historical experience.
…And woe to those who think that in the twentieth century they can save themselves without taking part in the tragedy, without purifying themselves through historical suffering.
Originally posted Wednesday, May 1st, 2013
Here is Henry James describing Americans’ energy and love of work via his hero Christopher Newman, in the novel, The American:
Exertion and action were as natural to him as respiration; a more completely healthy mortal had never trod the elastic soil of the West. His experience, moreover, was as wide as his capacity; when he was fourteen years old, necessity had taken him by his slim young shoulders and pushed him into the street, to earn that night’s supper. He had not earned it; but he had earned the next night’s, and afterwards, whenever he had had none, it was because he had gone without it to use the money for something else, a keener pleasure or a finer profit. He had turned his hand, with his brain in it, to many things; he had been enterprising, in an eminent sense of the term; he had been adventurous and even reckless, and he had known bitter failure as well as brilliant success; but he was a born experimentalist, and he had always found something to enjoy in the pressure of necessity, even when it was as irritating as the haircloth shirt of the mediaeval monk.
Originally posted Wednesday, April 24th, 2013
Here is a bit of hemming and hawing about what I love and don’t love about my country:
It is strange. The things I love about my country are the very things I hate. I love the rawness of the American spirit and I hate its crudeness. I love American boldness and I despise its brashness. I love Twinkies and Ripples chips and Oreos—they reflect a special brand of American brilliance-and I also hate their aftertaste. I love the American passion for independence and yet I hate the way it dissolves to selfishness. I hate American sloppiness but I love dressing casually in cut-offs and a T-shirt and being able to go to a restaurant that way if I want. I adore the extravagance in any direction that is possible in the U.S., but I despise the rampant materialism. I love the direct look in an American’s eye, and I love the basic honesty, but I also hate the lack of style and politeness. I love and I hate the lack of rules for social interaction. I love devil-may-care and I love the perfect centerpiece. I love the egalitarianism, the true story that in America you can rise from rags to riches, that you can be born poor and gain respect. Most of all, I love the sense of possibility that suffuses the air of my country. In America, you can ride over the horizon.
Think of the things you love and the things you dislike about your home country. Lay them out in specifics.
Of Many Lands: Journal of a Traveling Childhood
Originally posted Wednesday, April 17th, 2013