Dirty Foreheads

As you may know, yesterday was Ash Wednesday for many Christians. I’m not an “obsessive.” But I do try to observe reasonably.

After getting ashes at church, I stopped in at a small supermarket. At the check-out, the woman cashier – in her late teens to early twenties, I guess – chatted with me briefly. Suddenly, she looked at me a bit strangely.

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“And where are you from?”

On our way out of church this morning, the priest asked me, “And where are you from?”

He may merely have been asking where I was from in the U.K. It wasn’t our “regular” church. Nonetheless, I was startled.

I thought: Gee, do I look like I’m not from here? I’m sure, to some extent, I don’t.

As we shook hands, I replied, “I’m from New York originally.”

The look on his face indicated that answer was a surprise. I suppose he had indeed figured I was going to say Bristol or something.

But I often don’t know how to answer that question. I was born in New York City, and when asked where I’m from that’s my initial answer. I grew up on Long Island, in Suffolk County; but most Europeans haven’t a clue where Suffolk County is, and they usually associate “Long Island” either with the Hamptons or The Great Gatsby. And, here in England, there is a Suffolk county too – the “original” Suffolk, of course.

US Embassy London on Google. It's closed today, Sunday.
US Embassy London on Google. It’s closed today, Sunday.

I’ve also spent much more of my adult life outside of the U.S. than inside of it. But I always feel American, and like a New Yorker. And I even still feel like a Long Islander – even though I have for years had no ties to Long Island whatsoever.

I don’t think I’ll ever not feel that way. We can move wherever in the world, but is where we are born and reared imprinted on us for life? Seems so.

Just a little “quiet reflection.” Hope you’re having a good Sunday. :-)

Perceptions Of France

I like to post daily – if possible. But I took yesterday off deliberately because I wanted to have an extra ponder on this post. I also wanted to wait for this to take place, and it was larger than anyone had anticipated:

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I’ve written before that I try to avoid “generalizations” here. This is a novel-writing and expat site. It is not meant to be yet another blog showcasing yet another blogger’s biased views on “politics.”

That caveat again duly shared, I’d like to offer a few observations.

In a great deal of U.S.-based coverage I’ve seen of the Paris murders of journalists at Charlie Hebdo magazine and Jewish shoppers at the kosher Hyper Cacher supermarket, reporting has seemed framed mostly in an “us” [non-Muslims] vs. “them” [Muslims] perspective. That’s not a surprise. For years I’ve been getting the sense many in U.S. media see France as a backdrop for a Woody Allen film that now also contains a terrifying and growing internal “Saudi Arabia” springing up all over the place.

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As in most things, mundane realities are far more complicated and textured than reporting can manage easily to convey. French Muslims, who are now often second, third, and even fourth, generation descendants of immigrants from predominantly North Africa (where France had once been colonial overlord), are often as ordinary as other French. Many drink alcohol. Many don’t bother to get married, and have children outside of marriage – just like other French. Increasingly many are showing themselves indifferent about religion, and some are even atheists – again just like many other French.

The population of France is about 66 million. There are an estimated “5-6 million” Muslims in the country. However, there have been claims recently that that long-cited figure is probably way too high; that the number of “practicing Muslims” is now below 4 million and may be as low as around 2 million, or even less.

The French republic is built on “assimilation” of newcomers. France is also a resolutely “irreligious” state: the French Revolution was about not only freedom from aristocracy, but freedom from clericalism. One is socialized to become “French,” and keep your religion to yourself, and that is that.

So the French government is forbidden from asking about a person’s religious affiliation in a census, but agencies may ask in specific, limited circumstances. Most information about Islam is gleaned from “North African” national origin questions (i.e. Algerian or Moroccan). Yet estimating religion based on geography can be a dicey business given not everyone who has immigrated from there has been Muslim. Some were Jews and Roman Catholics.

Moreover “national origin” cannot tell us how “observant” anyone may be regarding any faith either. Born of North African immigrants into a “devout” Muslim home, former President Nicolas Sarkozy’s advisor Rachida Dati – while far more prominent than most – epitomizes an “assimilation” that is more common in France than U.S. media appears to grasp. Wikipedia details:

In September 2008, Dati announced that she was pregnant and would be a single mother. She revealed her pregnancy to a group of reporters who questioned her about mounting rumours. “I want to remain careful, because . . . I am still in the risky stage. I am 42″, she was quoted as saying. Her daughter, Zohra, was born in early 2009. As the name of the father was not revealed, many names circulated in gossip magazines….

An unmarried, single mother, who doesn’t share the name of the father of her child. That is NOT sexual behavior an imam would in any way approve of. And did she seem to care?

Clearly there are large problems. The existence of the far-right, anti-immigrant, National Front party reflects a raft of issues and disaffection among a substantial part of the French electorate. All is certainly not rosy.

But in day to day life, “assimilation” problems seem to stem not from religion nearly so much as from economic disparities, and cultural alienation due to marginalization and discrimination aimed at second and third generation children of immigrants – which perhaps makes some of them ripe for “radicalization.” For example, a 2010 study had shown that even with similar educational background and work experience, someone perceived as Muslim is much less likely to get a job interview.

Free Stock Photo: French flag at Arc de Triomphe.
Free Stock Photo: French flag at Arc de Triomphe.

Yet most Muslims are also so “assimilated” – they are teachers, lawyers, businesspeople, military and police, you name it – that if you visit France, chances are you might not be able to spot “a Muslim” on the street. On Friday, a French Huff Po writer pointed out how far more Muslims work for French security services – like policeman Ahmed Merabet, who was murdered outside of Charlie Hebdo – than Al Qaeda. Yes, there are noisy fundamentalists in some mosques, but usually they reach only small audiences: most Muslims don’t attend mosque any more than most French Catholics go to church – meaning rarely to never.

Some American media insist on portraying those murdering thugs’ take on Islam as “conquering” France. However, the norms of “France” appear to be proving much more “seductive” for most Muslims. On France 24 the other night, a commentator noted that before the 2010 ban on women wearing the “niqab” (a full face covering, which was worn by only a few thousand women), far larger numbers of Muslim Frenchwomen preferred bikinis anyway.

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UPDATE:
Similarly Americans are fed daily nonsense like this about Britain:

DesCrier FNC

That comes from the “most watched” news channel in the country. The likes of that hardly helps Americans at home better understand what life is actually like over here. But, then again, is that the goal?

“Yeh, but we don’t go to church much….”

I happened to notice recently that PBS America (meaning PBS’s UK channel) will begin showing The Roosevelts on October 19. My Mom back in Pennsylvania had told me the other day that, having seen it, she had been most impressed by Theodore. I told her that made sense: he lived life at triple the speed of the rest of us.

Because it rather reflects my personal outlook, for years I’ve liked this list by that first President Roosevelt:

In 1917, in an interview with Ladies Home Journal, President Roosevelt offered at least 10 reasons for going to church….

I won’t reproduce them: you can click *here* to read them. As we know, religion has *always* been a sensitive, and divisive, subject. We all have our own “personal journeys” of course.

Like many of you who were/ are Roman Catholic, growing up I had been escorted through all the “Catholic requirements.” But by my older teens and 20s, and, again, like many of you, I was definitely not a churchgoer. Frankly, I did not even really believe in any god.

However, as I moved into my 30s, I began to see the value in churchgoing much along the lines Theodore Roosevelt (he hated to be called “Teddy”) outlined. Do I believe in God now? Hmm. Let’s just say I don’t see a reason any longer to question others’ faith: my view is “faith” simply is.

The top of St. Peter's, The Vatican. [Photo by me, 2013.]
The top of St. Peter’s, The Vatican. [Photo by me, 2013.]

In fiction, faith is regularly portrayed as synonymous with an intolerant fanaticism. Yet what I encounter in various churches week in and week out are ordinary people full of life questions and doubts, and who enjoy gathering with their neighbors much as Roosevelt notes. That is worth attempting to portray accurately in fiction too.

So as I organized my tale, I decided I would include religion. But my characters would be similarly ordinary people with their own intensely personal, and varied, views. I would not attempt to ignore faith or pretend it is not there.

Here, during his first chat with Isabelle, James explains “what he is” after she casually inquires, “If you are Irish and Italian, you are Catholic, no?”:

“Yeh, but we don’t go to church much. I don’t think a lot about it. Busy with life I guess,” he sought to explain.

That was, essentially, also myself at his age. We may also find ourselves surprised by how people think of faith. When James explains his doubts, and meekly asks Isa about her own Catholicism, she replies:

“Do you think to be Catholic you have no doubt? A birth to a virgin? It is preposterous. …. You just have to have faith.”

Naturally not everyone “has faith.” In a previous post, we’ve already seen Uncle Bill tell Isabelle he considers himself a Unitarian. Separately, he also points out:

“You have faith. I admire that. I just can’t summon it up. Never could. Giuliana didn’t understand either.”

Indeed in the hope of better understanding someone, we may seek to “pry.” We might do so especially if what a person “believes” has not been overtly evident. For instance, James cagily asks Valérie if she’s a churchgoer like her friend, and she replies:

“Not regularly,” she admitted, sipping her drink. “My mother does go now and then. I think we did go more when we were little in Beirut. I remember church more in Beirut. Not as much in France. Not like Isabelle.”

And we also often encounter those who don’t want to be bothered with any of it:

“James, if you had answer wrong, you would not be here,” Béatrice stressed. “I don’t think [Isabelle] will marry a man who is not Catholic. Do not be offended, but I think it is all stupid and false. But that is me.”

How individuals approach religion is simply another aspect of their humanity. As in our own lives, it may be presented among characters’ make-ups as complete individuals. It does not have to turn a book into a “religion debate.” It can just be part of “life.”

Have a good Wednesday, wherever you are reading this. :-)

Sense Of Place

Yesterday I received a Facebook message from my wife’s friend in Bristol; her husband is writing a novel. He had a question for me about New York City. Specifically he wanted to know something about Brooklyn.

You remember him? I wrote about him a few months ago. He’s the guy who’ll probably get a film deal after selling like, urr, a gazillion books…. and I’ll sell, uh, quite a few less. ;-)

I was startled he had a question about anywhere in the U.S. I say that because he has managed, without ever having even once set a foot in the U.S., to write vividly about life, people and places in the country. Everything he knows about the U.S. he has picked up from books, TV, films…. and, uh, me.

Amazing how some manage that. But I find there is also nothing more satisfying and useful than having walked the ground in the places you are using – or even just think may use – as story background. Doing that imbues a tale with a much more rooted “sense of place.”

Pope Francis passing by at an audience in St. Peter's Square, the Vatican, September 2013. [Photo by me.]
Pope Francis passing by at an audience in St. Peter’s Square, the Vatican, September 2013. [Photo by me.]

I was unsurprisingly pleased (to be honest, ecstatic is a better word) when one of my readers wrote me that she enjoyed my detailing a Paris neighborhood where she had lived. She said it brought back happy memories. That I had been there myself definitely made a difference: I don’t know if I would have been able to write about it quite as I had if I had never been there in person.

Yep, umm, just like our pal Ernest Hemingway. ;-)

St. Augustine, Florida

We’re making our way “back north.” We stopped in St. Augustine, Florida, en route. As we do when we travel, we went to church locally last night.

And this one was pretty impressive. The Cathedral Basilica of St. Augustine is the oldest Roman Catholic parish in North America:

The Cathedral Basilica of St. Augustine. [Photo by me, 2014.]
The Cathedral Basilica of St. Augustine. [Photo by me, 2014.]
The tower of the Cathedral Basilica of St. Augustine. [Photo by me, 2014.]
The tower of the Cathedral Basilica of St. Augustine. [Photo by me, 2014.]
Brief history of the Cathedral Basilica of St. Augustine. [Photo by me, 2014.]
Brief history of the Cathedral Basilica of St. Augustine. [Photo by me, 2014.]

The Keys

Happy Sunday from Marathon, in the Florida Keys. Got here at last yesterday evening:

The view from the rear of our rental house, near Marathon, taken around 6:30am today. [Photo by me, 2014.]
The view from the rear of our rental house, near Marathon, taken around 6:30am today. [Photo by me, 2014.]

And I could, uh, much too easily get far too used to this. ;-)

Whenever we travel (in America, Ireland, Italy, France, wherever), we always find a Catholic Church and attend services locally. Doing so gets you mixing a bit – even if only for a little while – with area residents in a “non-tourist” manner. Once, in France, we even found ourselves at a baptism.

So we went to church early this morning at the beautiful San Pablo. It is gorgeous. I have to get a couple of photographs of it before we leave.

And I’d never been in a church before in which, in the pew, was a prayer card that included a “Prayer for No Hurricanes.”