In light of the holiday that is this Sunday I thought it appropriate to expound upon the continuous struggle of my daily life in France, namely, cultural differences. While the large differences are also the most noticeable, it is often the minute details that go against the grain. Easter is no exception. While the general gist is the same (Jesus died and was resurrected which inevitably led to chocolate eggs) it's the mode of delivery where France and the US, well most of the rest of the Western world actually, differ.
There's an excerpt I want to share with you from a book I recently bought in an English bookstore in Paris that exemplifies this precise difference. This is an autobiographical book called "Me Talk Pretty One Day" by David Sedaris, and is about his move to France and the difficulties found therein through language and culture. To give some context, in this excerpt Sedaris is in month two of his first French language class that he is taking in Paris. His classmates are a UN of nationalities and the teacher a straight up bitch. Just keep in mind that the conversations are translated from the broken French that is their only means of communication. Enjoy:
[We finished discussing Bastille Day, and the teacher moved on to Easter, which was represented in our textbook by a black-and-white photograph of a chocolate bell lying upon a bed of palm fronds.
"And what does one do on Easter? Would anyone like to tell us?"
The Italian nanny was attempting to answer the question when the Moroccan student interrupted, shouting, "Excuse me, but what's an Easter?"
Despite her having grown up in a Muslim country, it seemed she might have heard it mentioned once or twice, but no. "I mean it," she said. "I have no idea what you people are talking about."
The teacher then called upon the rest of us to explain.
The Poles led the charge to the best of their ability. "It is," said one, "a party for the little boy of God who call his self Jesus and . . . oh, shit."
She faltered, and her fellow countryman came to her aid.
"He call his self Jesus, and then he be die one day on two . . . morsels of . . . lumber."
The rest of the class jumped in, offering bits of information that would have given the pope an aneurysm.
"He die one day, and then he go above of my head to live with your father."
"He weared the long hair, and after he died, the first day he come back here for to say hello to the peoples."
"He nice, the Jesus."
"He make the good things, and on the Easter we be sad because somebody makes him dead today."
Part of the problem had to do with grammar. Simple nouns such as cross and resurrection were beyond our grasp, let alone such complicated reflexive phrases as "To give of yourself your only begotten son." Faced with the challenge of explaining the cornerstone of Christianity, we did what any self-respecting group of people might do. We talked about food instead.
"Easter is a party for to eat of the lamb," the Italian nanny explained. "One, too, may eat of the chocolate."
"And who brings the chocolate?" the teacher asked.
I knew the word, and so I raised my hand, saying, "The Rabbit of Easter. He bring of the chocolate."
My classmates reacted as though I'd attributed the delivery to the Antichrist. They were mortified.
"A rabbit?" The teacher, assuming I'd used the wrong word, positioned her index fingers on top of her head, wiggling them as though they were ears. "You mean one of these? A rabbit rabbit?"
"Well, sure," I said. "He come in the night when one sleep on a bed. With a hand he have the basket and foods."
The teacher sadly shook her head, as if this explained everything that was wrong with my country. "No, no," she said. "Here in France the chocolate is brought by the big bell that flies in from Rome."
I called for a time-out. "But how do the bell know where you live?"
"Well," she said, "how does a rabbit?"
It was a decent point, but at least a rabbit has eyes. That's a start. Rabbits move from place to place, while most bells can only go back and forth--and they can't even do that on their own power. On top of that, the Easter Bunny has character; he's someone you'd like to meet and shake hands with. A bell has all the personality of a cast-iron skillet. It's like saying that come Christmas, a magic dustpan flies in from the North Pole, led by eight flying cinder blocks. Who wants to stay up all night so they can see a bell? And why fly one in from Rome when they've got more bells than they know what to do with right here in Paris? That's the most implausible aspect of the whole story, as there's no way the bells of France would allow a foreign worker to fly in and take their jobs. That Roman bell would be lucky to get work cleaning up after a French bell's dog -and even then he'd need papers. It just didn't add up.
Nothing we said was of any help to the Moroccan student. A dead man with long hair supposedly living with her father, a leg of lamb served with palm fronds and chocolate. Confused and disgusted, she shrugged her massive shoulders and turned her attention back to the comic book she kept hidden beneath her binder. I wondered then if, without the language barrier, my classmates and I could have done a better job making sense of Christianity, an idea that sounds pretty far-fetched to begin with.
In communicating any religious belief, the operative word is faith, a concept illustrated by our very presence in that classroom. Why bother struggling with the grammar lessons of a sixyear-old if each of us didn't believe that, against all reason, we might eventually improve? If I could hope to one day carry on a fluent conversation, it was a relatively short leap to believing that a rabbit might visit my home in the middle of the night, leaving behind a handful of chocolate kisses and a carton of menthol cigarettes. So why stop there? If I could believe in myself, why not give other improbabilities the benefit of the doubt? I accepted the idea that an omniscient God had cast me in his own image and that he watched over me and guided me from one place to the next. The virgin birth, the resurrection, and the countless miracles -my heart expanded to encompass all the wonders and possibilities of the universe.
A bell, though, that's fucked up.]
Happy Easter everyone!