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“You are about to meet some of the most charming people on the planet”, promises Helene Neiman in her travel memoir “My Life As French Ghetto”. Helen is not the first person to have noticed the charm of the French people and their culture. In this memoir of her one year in Marseilles, she goes about trying to show us that charm through her eyes. And she does a very good job of it.
At the books opening, Helen is a 22 year old woman, who has just graduated from a good university in the United States and has joined an organization to do volunteer work in France. She is stationed in Marseilles, and given housing with three other volunteers, including a woman from the North of France and a man from Switzerland.
The person whom they work for Marie Vivienne, is charged with housing them and finding them something useful to do. She is vivacious, filled with boundless energy and seems to know everyone.
The housing they are given is in a government subsidized project at the edge of Marseilles. The sense that one gets from Helene is that that these apartments, (and the neighborhood) were at one time filled with poor French people, who have since made enough money to move out, even if a few preferred to continue to live in the “banlieue”. The apartments of these French who chose to stay, have been to one degree or another modernized.
But most of the people living in the banlieue, (when Helene arrived) were North African immigrants, whose apartments were not kept quite so well. The French seemed to mostly disapprove of them and believed they brought overcrowding and crime into the area. Helen begged to differ. She found the people very friendly, (as well as curious as to what an American was doing there) and the area very safe day or night.
The problem for Helen’s volunteer project is that the French did not really need many volunteers. If anything there were more hands that needed work than jobs available to them. And this led to some problems, as working locals saw people who “volunteered” to do their job, like scab labor breaking down, or at least insulting the value of their work.
This happens when Helen works as an English teacher and helping in a clinic for people with problems with alcohol. Helen does eventually find work at a shelter to help give showers and other services to the very poor.
“My Life As French Ghetto” is broken down into chapters, that for the most part are like short stories of her interrelationship with various aspects of her life in Marseilles. It could be about the people in her apartment complex. It could be about her roommates. It could be about French workers, how they think and behave. It could be about gypsy neighborhoods. Or Helen will take us on tours of the different areas of the city.
In every area of her story Helen will impart to us the charm of the people and the life of the city. She frequently compares these experiences to her life in Brooklyn, New York and the United States, usually to the detriment of her own country.
Here are some of her observations about the French that she saw as being in high contrast to the people back home.
“The adult is supreme in France, and would not put another one down to a group of children, no matter how despised the adult” On bus rides, “the older North African women who boarded the bus confidently carrying their food baskets and plastic bags from shopping, looked round to spot the nearest youngster, and promptly ejected that youngster from whatever seat he was occupying. If there were only very young children, these matrons would only eject the children just long enough to sit down and then put the children back on their laps, all done without ever asking permission of whichever adult accompanied the child. Children had limited rights that gave way to the older set. I never saw a youngster protest no matter how young or how old, how cool or how unruly he otherwise might be.”
Helen goes on; “The teenagers on that bus were good to see too. They looked not so different from our teenagers, with their exaggerated interest in hair and clothing, every part of appearance carefully picked over. But what they spoke about was completely different from what I remembered from my high school days in the States. The chatted about philosophy and politics. And they didn’t seem to segregate particularly according to who was a good or a bad dresser.”
Helen notes the differences between French and Americans in a group for alcohol problems; “Most often members told each other to be sage rather than to be strong or careful. These participants thought of themselves as regaining savoir- vivre (a love of life) rather than fighting with the beast of substance abuse.”
About the street children of the government housing project where she lived, called gamins by the French; “They were the most freewheeling joy seeking, unabashedly self serving children I had ever met, and there was a great joy in watching them go about their business”.
And about public places; “Unlike our corporate coffee locales in the States, you don’t often get background music in French restaurants and cafes. Their purpose is conversation, while ours is oblivion. In the States conversation lags and we feel bad if we don’t fill our silences.”
On equality and values; “Frances idea of equality is a much more encompassing notion than our ideas in the States. In France most people don’t feel culpable if they’re doing badly economically, and there is a general consensus that people down on their luck should be taken care of, and not ashamed…… We Americans…….. have this new tendency to think everything we’re doing is crazy. Some desire to be special? I hadn’t missed this in the US. It had been nice to see French people doing all sorts of esoteric things without glorifying in them, or being marked out by them. It was just what they did. Even if you were the only one who did something. If you had a good reason to do it, it was indeed normal and no one remarked on it. This included one of my bosses sleeping on the kitchen table when we spent a weekend in a mountain lodge because his roommate snored too loud.”
Helen also points out how in France doing something because you receive pleasure from it is seen to be a good thing, something that needs no explanation or apology. Where as in the Anglo Saxon world pleasure must be earned.
Helen’s observations are excellent throughout, although certainly others in Marseilles might well beg to differ. But the weakness of her book is that it is essentially journalism. Helen draws excellent pictures of many, many people, (both French and North African) but none go beyond the superficial. Perhaps because of that what we learn about Helene herself, (her main character) is limited.
We learn nothing about her life in Brooklyn, university, parents, siblings, friends, or lovers. And in Marseilles we will only learn about Helen’s surface. She likes one of her roommates and dislikes another. Why? Four people lived together for a year. Certainly there was politics, from which we might learn more about who Helene is, if only from her behavior in messy situations. Little is mentioned.
Helen’s soul is well guarded. She gives us a sense of stiffness and remoteness. Everything she observes penetrates, but we are left to question how much or how far?
No travel memoir can rise above being good, unless we can feel the blood and sinew of not just the main character, but one or more whom we are introduced to. Helen Nieman is a good writer and observer. But if she is to fulfill her potential she has to give us more of herself, the good, the bad and the ugly.
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