Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Vive la France!

This post is probably not about what you expect.

Anyone who thinks class is neither a reality nor an issue in the United States is incredibly sheltered, naïve, misinformed, or deliberately ignorant. For all that we cite "all men are created equal," the harsh reality is that our society acts as though all persons are not equal. It has ever been thus, though the dream of treating all equally perdures to challenge and inspire us.

I believe in that maxim and that dream and the goal of acting on that reality. Our equality before God and in creation is a given. We need to live from that reality.

Class structure, class attitudes, and class behavior are, nonetheless, part of our everyday existence.

My perception is that of someone from "the working class." One grandfather was a railroad man, the other a farmer and construction worker. Both had supervisory positions but they were not part of management by any means. One came from Sweden as a young man. My grandmothers raised moderately large families (for Baptist ladies, not Catholics or Mormons). I am a third-generation Swedish-American, so I have immigrant roots. My father was, for many years, a letter carrier until he got a job doing technical repairs and maintenance for the USPO (back before it became the USPS). My mother was "a housewife" and it was not the sort of leisured life of the wealthy where she needed clubs and charities to keep her busy. My brothers-in-law were truck drivers and operating engineers. You get the picture. I have college-educated cousins but in my immediate family I am the only one with a college education, not to mention graduate studies.

Because of my education, work history, and interests I have moved in the circles of doctors, lawyers, professors, clergy, managers, and artists. Blue collar roots, white collar life. I see the "white collar" world around me with "blue collar eyes," the eyes of someone who will always be an outsider, who will not always buy into the mythos and perspective of those around me.

Margaret wrote a post that touched me:
It is a strange and wonderful thing to be "the help." You are invisible... well, except to the other "help." When I walk down the street with my apron folded over my arm, I get a lot of nods of acknowledgment from the waiters and street sweepers and maids and every one else who wears an apron.

It is the rare individual who looks at "the help" and sees a person.

I hope I will always remember that.
I hope I remember too. It is no virtue of mine that I cannot remember when I did not see the "help" as people, my equals, human beings with lives and context and joys and sorrows, as people who matter in this cosmos. That perspective is purely a gift of God. I have waited tables, washed dishes and cleaned kitchens, and enjoy talking with people who clean the buildings where I work.

So among the many people I met in my undergraduate years I remember the housekeeper, Elena, who was a Cuban exile and whose father was a bank president. She tidied my room and made my bed once a week and carried her dignity. We always chatted. Her Cuban accent grated on my Central California ears as we talked in both Spanish and English. She always posed indignantly to indicate what a slob I was. And am. Peace be upon her.

And the janitor in our building in Emeryville when I worked in biotech. I celebrated a house blessing and Eucharist in his sisters' apartment the day the Oakland Hills fire broke out.

I have served as an altar guild person. I know what it is to get wine and lipstick stains out of linen and to iron it afterward. I have polished brass and cleaned up candle wax. I try never to forget to thank the altar guild either before or after a service.

Why, you may well be wondering by now, am I writing about all this on Bastille Day?

Well, it is because I went to a junior high school (long since demolished) that had classes in Spanish and German but not in French. The adjoining junior high school district offered classes in French and Latin. There were clear class distinctions between these two school districts. I was from a somewhat "poorer" section of town, though still semi-respectably middle class. In order to take advantage of some of the offerings at Fresno High School (in 1961-64), my family fought to get a transfer from the high school district in which I lived to FHS. Most of the kids in the college prep classes (what they call advanced placement, or AP, now, I believe) were from the other junior high school. Their parents were of the "professional" class whereas my part of town was of the "working" class.

So it was not Gallic attitude that I projected onto the French people but the sense of social superiority I felt from (or projected on to) my classmates who had gone to THE OTHER junior high. It did not help that the French had, in the American mind, a reputation for being cultural snobs.

I had three years of Spanish and four years of Latin by the time I graduated from high school. I felt, on a very non-reflective level, that French was the language of snobs.

Guess what my major was in college?

You got it: French.

By the time I graduated in 1968 I was fluent in French, the only language other than English of which I can say this. I had lived two months in Montpellier and one month in Paris. And, oh yes, I carried on conversations with "the common folk," the guards where I lived (with their wonderful meridional peasant accents that I loved to imitate), the shopkeepers, and anyone I came across.

I got to know the French people mostly through those who lived in the south (le Midi). I met them in their homes. I visited where some of them worked. I worshipped with them. I loved the shopkeepers on the Île St Louis in Parish and they all treated me like some distant relative. It was a wonderful experience.

Though I had been warned about French attititudes about Americans, my experience was quite the opposite. I met folks who remembered WWII and who embraced me just because the Americans had come to their aid. Not what I expected.

Anyway, on this Bastille Day I want to express my gratitude for the people of France, then and now - for their history and culture and cuisine and artistic legacy. I still think their self-perception is a bit, well, overblown, but we Yanks have a beam in our eye compared to that mote.

Vive la France! Vivent le français!

Holy Louis IX and Holy Jeanne d'Arc, pray for us all!

Edith Piaf - Non, Je ne regrette rien

--the BB


it's margaret said...

God bless you, Paul. Always.

And I think I have a very good idea --trade in albs at the altar for aprons. Deacons can have aprons with one pocket, priests three, and bishops will wear chef hats.... !!! Of course, all in properly done liturgical colors.

It would put servanthood back at the altar, perhaps?!

Paul said...

I never felt called to be a deacon and lied before God and the People when I said I was so called at my ordination to the transitional diaconate. Hey, it was the only way to become a priest.

I do believe in and support the diaconate as an order with its own integrity.

But the day I celebrated my first Mass I stood at the altar with my arms in the orans position and thought to myself, "this is how I am called to serve." I am a servant as a presbyter and all my ministry is to serve - to serve the world, to serve the Church, to serve the People of God. I am not a deacon, but I am a servant.

I have no patience with priests who do not grasp this and a boiling ire for those who think they should be served.

Brian R said...

I envy your ability with French. I studied it for 5 years at school but in those times the emphasis was on vocab and grammar and not speaking the language. After a good pass at school level I studied it for one year at university and failed ending my planned career as a language teacher. I can read fairly well (although even this is diminishing through lack of practice) but conversing when I visit France is terrible. However I find the French are quite forgiving as long as you attempt to speak their language and not assume they know English and thankfully they seem to love les Australiens.

Paul said...

I certainly got my share of grammar and vocabulary. By my second year of French the classes were taught entirely in French and we were ordered to have an all-French dictionary. By the third year I was in the French wing of a language dorm, and then spent the first semester of my senior year in France. So it was a reasonable immersion. But I soak up languages. Nonetheless, this fluency was four decades ago and I don't use it now, unlike Spanish.

My recent retreat on Russian shows how much harder it is now than it was then.

ammamcp said...

I commented on that post of Margarets', too, but I forget sometimes that my ability to "see" those folks is a gift and informed by my parents blue collar background, too.

My dad was a barber and mom was a waitress. I am a staff nurse so I am in the middle of the food chain, neither blue or white collar.

To the housekeepers I'm pretty high up the food chain, but to the doctors, I'm pretty far down. It's an interesting perspective!

Ellie Finlay said...

Very thought provoking post, Paul.

I'd like to say something about the whole class thing but it's late and I'm tired so I probably wouldn't make any sense!