Thursday, July 16, 2009

La Transformation

When I read about ModCloth's Terrific Transformations Contest, I inevitably thought about the months I spent in France. Now that it's been over five years since I returned from my extended stay in 2004, I've had the time to really reflect on what I learned during that time and how it changed me forever.

I think the main trait that my stay in Touraine changed about me was my level of maturity. Until then, I had never truly lived on my own. Though I had my own dorm room for a few years, I had never been really responsible for preparing all my own meals and figuring out how to live.

The first few weeks were difficult. I had gone to live with a family who had experienced true tragedy: the father had just lost his beloved wife to a chronic illness followed by a lengthy coma. He was struggling to learn all of the household skills that his wife had taken care of for so many years. He was re-learning how to be a father to his 12-year-old son, who himself was learning how to cope with life as a motherless child amidst the awkwardness of burgeoning adolescence.

Enter me, a somewhat naive 21-year-old college student with big ideas about deconstructing every stereotype that ever existed between the French and the Americans. I truly could not begin to understand what these two men were going through, but I was suddenly thrust into their lives and had to figure out how to make it all work.

The father's expectations didn't quite match the traditional role of an au-pair (he let his cleaning lady go a week before I arrived) and combined with the fact that he was a neophyte at household management and was also emotionally crippled, things did not go well. I had dreamt of coming to France to discover new places and nuances in the language, not to scrub toilets and iron dress shirts.

In short, I couldn't make it work. It was a big lesson in listening to myself and understanding when I couldn't make a difference, or at least not make the difference these people were expecting. I felt like a failure when I informed my host father that I would be moving into an apartment after about six weeks in the house. He seemed almost relieved. I think it had been a strain on him to pretend to be a normally-functioning man for my benefit when he was actually so bereaved and confused about his own life.

But the experience did have its advantages: for the first time, I realized that I was the only one who could direct my own life. I did not have to allow one of the best experiences of my life to be so severely influenced by the misery of an unfortunately tragic situation. Though that sounds selfish, I think it was for the best.

The experience transformed me from a naive girl into a self-sufficient woman. I had to cook and clean for myself; navigate the transportation system; master lingusitic and cultural obstacles and maintain my schoolwork at the same time.

Part of it were successful; parts of it weren't. But I think of that experience as my transformation from a girl into a woman; from a person who'd never left her hometown into a citizen of the world.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

A Tangible Stimulus

The New York Times reported yesterday on France's stimulus package. I have to admit that it sounds much more appealing than ours does currently - a big flashy project like the Château de Fontainebleau makes for much better publicity than our slow roll out of funds. Sometimes I daydream about what it would be like to live in a country in which the arts are so highly valued.

I don't mean to say that the U.S. doesn't value the arts; it's just that the folks responsible for creating our budgets tend not to put their money where their praise is. Even living in an area as artistically and philathropically rich as Pittsburgh, I wish that there was more government support.

Pennsylvania's governor, Ed Rendell, recently decided to balance the state's budget by pulling funding for an astonishing number of nonprofit organizations across the state. This includes not only traditional arts organizations, but historic preservation groups and libraries as well. It gets very tiresome to hear every few years that our local nonprofits could be in serious jeopardy.

Our local regional asset district, which collects 1% sales tax in Allegheny County for the support of public assets, made the decision several years ago to use a great deal of its money to commit to several large, multi-year projects. As a result, funding for smaller organizations was reduced and, coupled with the elimination of state-level funding in the new budget, I'm not sure how many of them will survive much longer. (This same regional asset district contributed to the funding of Heinz Field and PNC Park, both "public assets" that should be able to support themselves, in my opinion.)

I know that many Americans are suffering in the current economic situation and there are myriad sad and tragic stories as a result, but I think the arts situation is the one that depresses me the most. I'm not entirely convinced that government officials will restore nonprofit funding once the recession is over.

"It is easier to find money for castles and cathedrals, of course, in a country that believes “art is equal to other investments, not secondary,” as Mr. Devedjian puts it." -NYT

Photo: Château de Fontainebleau by Feuillu.