So much of culture is local. The rest of the world ignores what we think is important wherever we happen to be.
I discovered that when I returned to New York after my first few months in France. As I sorted through my mail and went through weeks and weeks of magazines, I saw that much of what had been written about with such importance in April, May, June or July was actually not particularly vital a season or so later. The writing on classical-music concerts or pop records was dated, the reviews of movies didn’t seem to matter, the must-read new books no longer seemed essential.
Of course, it’s all a matter of perspective. For instance, a French movie actor, Bernard Giraudeau, died of cancer at the age of 63, just before I left France. He was widely eulogized in the French press. But I saw no coverage of him or his death in the U.S. press – no New York Times obituary, no mention of his passing anywhere. It was as if he hadn’t existed.
Actually, for most Americans he didn’t. Giraudeau’s movies didn’t travel to the U.S., or if they had, they’d been relegated to an art house or two in a few cities. He was also the narrator of the Harry Potter audio books in French – but who listens to those in Anglophone countries? – and he was a writer and director as well as actor. He was important to the French (or to some French), but insignificant to most Americans.
I only knew of him because I’d spent time in France and had begun to absorb French culture. Had I not been there and done that, his passing would have been as irrelevant to me as it had been to the U.S. press.
In addition, my living in France had made what passed for significant in the United States during my time abroad only marginally interesting for me since I wasn’t in New York to take part in any of it. You had to be there.
I wondered if my provincialism had reversed, whether I’d become French-centric at the expense of my American upbringing or point of view. I was so taken with taking up another culture that I’d let my interest in my own country’s culture slip. When I returned to the U.S., however, I did catch up with trends there, but I also realized that it’s too easy to be swayed by local opinion and passing fads. My localities had changed, but my interests had split between two countries rather than becoming more global, if whatever it means to be global is even possible. I had to a certain extent enlarged my horizons but they had remained relatively narrow because I didn’t always see beyond where I was living at a given moment.
Of course it’s naïve to expect that because you’ve become aware of something that others should take a similar interest in it. I tend to be naïve anyway – one of those character traits that years of cynical wisecracking can’t entirely cover up – and so was perhaps more surprised than I should have been that what’s news in one place is ho-hum or entirely nonexistent in another.
Despite the globalization of American culture, much of American culture passes the French by, too, of course. You can’t be aware of everything. Or more to the point, you’re just not interested in everything everywhere. It’s impossible to keep up, and it’s futile to try.
What’s more important, or at least I’ve come to believe that this is true for me, is to appreciate what I have before me. I can’t share my enthusiasm for a particular French song that won’t get play in America or a movie that will never be released in the U.S. or a novel that will never be translated into English with an American who’ll never hear it or see it or read it.
What’s the point? It’s worthless cultural bragging, as if my bona fides are somehow superior because I’ve exposed myself to something different somewhere else. But I can learn to appreciate the thing for itself, and my own appreciation of it as something to savor privately, even if I cannot convince anyone else of its importance to me or why that should even matter. Because it doesn’t. Yes, we want to share what we love or like, but we expect to make converts of others when what we generally do is bore people, because what we love makes no sense to someone who needs footnotes for our personal cultural experiences.
Returning to the U.S. for a few months before I left again for France made me realize of course how local I always was and always will be despite the greater variety of experiences I’d begun to have. I wanted familiar faces in unfamiliar places, I wanted big-name singers or actors or writers where I happened to be, and I wanted people I’d come to know of abroad to be recognized regardless of their cultural importance where I was at any given moment.
In effect, I had an illusion of worldliness, when after all, what I really wanted was the world at my doorstep.