Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Bringing It Home

Innumerable travelers have brought back mementos of their trips to Europe.  Americans, however, often tend to go beyond mere souvenirs and look for something more.


Something about Europe impels us to acquire and imitate it. Traveling across the country one finds countless restaurants, buildings, and churches inspired by European models. Supermarkets advertise the “Old World” taste of their foods. “European” is a marketing adjective evoking an inexplicable something that captivates the imagination.

This penchant for Europe is definitely worth discussing in our “Only in America” section.

In our search for American paradoxes, we find a country born of a desire for independence from the Old World, yet still inextricably bound to it.  We glory in our modern industrialization, yet find solace in the medieval cathedrals and villages of Europe. Indeed, such paradoxical desires are seen “only in America.”

Consider the fact that in its beginnings, the United States harbored a pronounced prejudice against the Old World. Thomas Jefferson warned against sending Americans to Europe for their education, which he considered would “admit the hollow, unmeaning manners of Europe to be preferable to the simplicity and sincerity of our country.”

In his famous essay “The American Scholar,” Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote: “I ask not for the great, the remote, the romantic; what is doing in Italy or Arabia; what is Greek art, or Provençal minstrelsy; I embrace the common, I explore and sit at the feet of the familiar, the low. Give me insight into today, and you may have the antique and future worlds.”

And yet today, that prejudice has been largely overcome.

Not only do we like to visit the Old World by the millions, we want to bring it back with us. We like to recreate the taste, scents, and sounds of Europe and integrate them into our lives. Europe speaks to us of something we lack; its ways call us to look beyond the tangible. In the nanosecond nineties, it fills a void in our souls for the organic, the sacred, and the timeless.

We bring home European wines to supplement our own as we search for excellence. We not only admire and enjoy French cuisine, we import their famous chefs to prepare such dishes here. Fine homes are adorned in rich European styles. Fashions still take cues from European designers.


The Cloisters in New York City

Nor does this trend stop at foods and fashions; it can include whole buildings. In New York City, one can visit the Cloisters, a division of the Metropolitan Museum of Art where whole medieval monastic structures, dismantled stone by stone in Europe, have been reassembled here for Americans to savor. Similarly, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston features fifteenth-century arches and columns, balconies and balustrades, all shipped from Italy early this century. The famous nineteenth-century London Bridge was dismantled and reassembled at Lake Havasu City, Arizona, in 1971.

The desire does not stop there.

In face of such massive transplants, it is hard not to be intrigued by Americans who go further still. One of these is a writer who was not satisfied with wines or buildings. Enchanted with France, she wanted to bring the whole country home.

Cheryl MacLachlan’s Bringing it Home—France is a book that explores the essence of what it means to be French and recommends ways of introducing that French spirit into the American home. As a former associate publisher for an American magazine in Europe, the author felt drawn by France’s allure. Its culture nourished a part of her soul “that had heretofore been unattended.”

For several years, she lived, dined, and conversed with families in different regions of France, spending her waking hours “soaking up every detail of daily life.” The result is a very American attempt to break down the transportable components of French life for later reassembly. What was once only in France can now be (only) in America.

In the minute details and nuances of everyday life, she was able to penetrate France’s irresistible charm. Her room-by-room analysis of the French home reads more like an essay on French culture than a manual of interior decoration. Indeed, it is an essay since history intermeshes with the present in her descriptions of décor: styles of kings past enrich the modern; creativity abounds.

Bringing it Home—France deals with nearly everything: from the art of dressing a window to the choice of wallpaper, from knowing fine porcelain to understanding kitchen tiles; from judging a good wine to tasting fine cheese; from savoir faire to bien recevoir—the art or knowing how to say and do the right thing to that of receiving well.

Alas, the book makes all too clear that the secret to bringing France home lies not in carting back Louis XIV furniture, but in bringing home the French spirit—a quality readily admired yet not easily acquired. Nevertheless, the invitation is irresistible. Behind the furnishings, another world beckons.

A key element of this world is the French ability to harmonize. Fabric, wallpaper, pictures, lighting—many with contrasting styles—all find a way to mingle amiably. Rather than pre-matched furniture sets, the French tend to be eclectic, making different things work together. The “harmonious marriage” of texture, color, light, and scale creates an ambience, and the results are often both dazzling and original.

The French understand that decoration, like a fine wine, takes time. Present in the French ambience is an underlying tone of tradition. The French surround themselves with items inherited from previous generations. Furniture, paintings, and other heirlooms recall a living family history and provide continuity. A distinctive family and regional style permeate the home, allowing one to feel the family presence and thereby giving context and meaning to life.

The French home is filled with the joie de vivre, that exuberance for life that seems to turn everything into an art. Signs of life abound in French rooms, exhibiting an almost haphazard disregard for convention. Creating an environment that will stimulate the art of conversation becomes more important than staid correctness. Creating a setting for dinner, l’art de la table, is a task that might take hours, but the result is a unique opportunity to share the fullness of life.

Of course, one cannot really bring Europe home. Centuries of living tradition are not readily transportable. Still, our Herculean efforts to do so speak of a hunger for tradition and assuage desires not easily satisfied in our postmodern world.

Indeed, it speaks of yet more.

Europe was born of Christian civilization. It was the Catholic Church that took the decaying ruins of the Roman world and drew order from chaos, harmony from confusion. The action of the Church gave life and order to institutions, laws, and customs, which endure to our day. It was the Church that took France, Her first-born daughter, and raised her to the height of civilization, where she became the delight of the world.

If France and Europe enchant us, it is because they retain remnants of a Christian tradition and order for which we yearn. If we are impelled to bring Europe home, perhaps it is because Holy Mother Church is actually calling us home.


Photo taken by Luke van Grieken on 4 May 2006 using a Canon IXUS 750 camera, uploader was 98octane at en.wikipedia - Edited by (Sharpened, Jpeg Artifact removed): Arad.

from en wikipedia. The Cloisters, Metropolitan Museum, 300 pixels x 400 pixels, © 2003, by Wikipedia user:alex756, all rights reserved; ''the license granted herein is to Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. for non-exclusive distribution under the [[)

Permission is granted to copy, distribute and/or modify this document under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2 or any later version published by the Free Software Foundation; with no Invariant Sections, no Front-Cover Texts, and no Back-Cover Texts. A copy of the license is included in the section entitled "GNU Free Documentation License".

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