Thursday, March 5, 2009

Becoming a Small

We’ve just come back from spending two weeks in California, and I’ve discovered something unsettling. I’ve shrunk.

If you’ve been following this blog you’ll have guessed by now I intend this in a vague quasi-philosophical sense that will give rise to various reflections on life in rural France about half way through this post. I’m hoping to get there, but first things first. I’m talking clothing.

One of the things we invariably do in America is buy clothing, which is both less expensive and less, er, polyester than much of what we can find within an hour’s radius of our house. But this time around I suddenly found myself buying a shirt in a size “small.” How’d I become a small? I have my suspicions. It’s the same reason that even if I buy a shirt that’s ostensibly my size it fits me like a garbage bag. I’m not shrinking in an absolute physical sense. I have become small now, in a relative sense, because people in general are getting, well, wider.

But - here it comes - this sartorial downsizing has broader implications, a symbolic resonance if you like. Living someplace so small-town and remote has changed me, changed all three of us, more than we might have expected. We have come to feel smaller in what has started to seem like a very big world. Even though I was born in Los Angeles, I felt dwarfed and disoriented on this latest trip back home. Montcabrier to Los Angeles is perhaps an extreme transition - plenty of thoroughly urban people feel dwarfed and disoriented in LA. Plenty of Los Angelinos feel dwarfed and disoriented in LA, which may just explain that impression of pampered goofiness which haunts the world’s entertainment capital. But the fact remains, our tolerance for big has shrunk.

One particular shopping trip really said it all. We went to the Topanga Plaza, a local shopping mall, ostensibly the same mall I visited regularly as a child, with the simple idea of picking up some inexpensive clothing and letting Sebastian ride the double-decker carousel. No big deal, but every step of the way I was reminded of the pervasive smallness of our new home. Having gotten used to narrow country roads, often only a little more than one car wide, just pulling out of my mother’s driveway was confusing. Her suburban street, a cul-de-sac with minimal traffic, is already wider than the main road to Cahors and even a short section of it would qualify in most villages as an ample parking lot. Each lane on a California freeway could nearly serve as two on a French motorway (and Los Angelinos, I noticed this time, are no better at staying within these wide lanes than the French are at staying in their narrow ones). But then they need to be: one in three cars is an SUV or Hummer large enough to transport livestock.

So we arrive at the mall, and in the course of five minutes pass more shops than we could find within a 45-minute drive of Montcabrier. The food court alone offered a dozen varieties of ethnic food – having to choose between Korean BBQ, sushi and Mexican when you have gotten used to the idea of pizza as being ethnic is daunting, but a wonderful problem to have. And then it hit me: our entire village, the whole thing, from the ruined medieval gate at the west end to Jojo’s house at the east, from the village’s resident donkey in his field at the north to the old priory with its Renaissance chimney to the south, would fit within this one enclosed climate-controlled retail space. Even the ceiling with its plentiful roof-windows could easily accommodate the three-tiered triangular bell tower of St. Louis, Montcabrier’s church.

I have to admit, it gave me a vaguely uncomfortable feeling, wandering around so banal a place and yet reacting with a mix of scorn and awe more appropriate to visiting Dubai than to shopping at the local Target. Lost among clothes racks big enough to require planning permission in Europe searching for something wearable among shirts that that look like they should come with poles, stakes and mosquito netting, I felt nostalgic for our little world. And yet this too is home for me. This is what was meant to be my world. Not just the corndog stands and the tacky environmentally nightmarish suburban trucks people drive in, but the vibrancy, the diversity, the sheer energy that comes with packing millions of people into a relatively small area. It is all mine to embrace or to reject, but what did not sit well with me, what really got me thinking, was the fact of being at once so drawn to it and yet so uncomfortable in it. I find myself between worlds, which on some level means being nowhere at all. I am homesick, but I’m no longer sure where home is.

Sebastian has no such sense of angst, as far as I can tell. While Sophia and I waffle about questions of culture and lifestyle and identity and belonging, he just gets on with it. Montcabrier is his world, and LA is a magical far-off land where every couple of years he gets spoiled by his grandmother, plays with his cousin and solemnly shakes hands with Mickey Mouse. Sophia and I may inwardly giggle when he asks if the canary yellow Ferrari that has just blown past us is the mailman, because of course back home that yellow is the signature color of the French mail service, but Sebastian just takes it in stride. Like having to learn French by osmosis when he entered nursery school, this cultural acclimatization is just a normal part of his multicultural world. Papa’s home town is huge and American. Mama’s is a bit smaller and Dutch. Sebastian’s is tiny and French. It’s all fine with him. He is able to appreciate it all for what it is, which in itself is a gift.

Arriving back at my mother’s house, I open the remote-controlled garage door and we drive in to park. Sebastian seems far away and thoughtful as I unbuckle him from the car seat.

“You know,” he says at last, looking around, impressed, “this is a good barn. It’s so big, you can just drive right inside it and not get wet in the rain. I like this barn.” He’s got a point. 


J said...

I like Sebastian. He makes me laugh.

You've captured it perfectly. I never feel at home in LA. I've always felt like an imposter. Thank goodness America has more to offer and more interesting cities with a small town flavor than LA.

Jess McCue said...

This makes me homesick, and yet I wonder if I'll feel the same when I return home.

I really want to meet my cousin; he sounds like such an incredible little boy!