: My Longing To Be French :

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an excerpt by Paul Christensen

After I had finished writing my memoir about the first twenty years of my life in southern France, Strangers in Paradise: A Memoir of Provence (Wings Press, 2007), I felt I had defined a relation between me as an American and the France that had long been an enigma to me. I was satisfied that I had made the case that one could still remold one's identity even at mid-life. I started the memoir at the age of forty-four and finished it by fits and turns when I had turned sixty-three.  Perhaps, at the back of my mind, was the example of Paul Gauguin-whose life as a stock broker in Paris was utterly extinguished in his flight to Tahiti, where he not only dredged up the painter buried deep in his psyche, but absorbed, merged with the rituals and beliefs of his fellow islanders. He was forty-three at the time of his move from one extreme of French individualism to the collective soul of Tahitian society-a journey backward in time to before the age of Plato, and a link with the primordial past. His brush stroke was heavy, sodden with paint, his lines were thick and moodily imprecise. He was not delineating reality but falling through it, into an abyss of mergings and dissolutions of self.

Had I come so far, I wondered? The narrative I wrote followed the self-conscious professor of literature into the back country of the Luberon, a mountain and a half of granite covered in juniper bushes and scrub oaks, and the trenches dug up by the tusks of wild boar. The villages thereabout had been around since the Roman era, and each looked across to the blue creases of this mountain and its smaller twin like bemused owls-a window onto the mountain always raised the price of a house by two or three times. The cold, dark, opaque windows in the inner villages were not only cheaper, but often roomier-and in the summer, cooler from lack of direct sun. I talked long and hard about my numbness and inflexibility upon first descending into this still medieval world, of how I seemed to thaw out and rediscover my senses little by little, as if I were coming out of a prolonged, shallow coma after a long, middling academic career at Texas A&M University.