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A Stranger in Tonnerre

The American dream transposed to the French provinces

by
Daniel Solomon
December 06, 2021
Photo illustration: Tablet Magazine
Photo illustration: Tablet Magazine

The trope of the American in Paris is one of the most salient images in the trans-Atlantic cultural repertoire. The tradition reaches back to the founding of the United States, when Benjamin Franklin titillated Parisian aristocrats with his outlandish get-ups and lightning rods. The snapshots continue down the ages: the soldiers of the two world wars in pursuit of Paris’ aesthetic and carnal charms; Gershwin’s arrivistes and ingénues, strolling the grand boulevards and breaking into song; even today’s specimens of mass tourism, barging into cafés and demanding a table for two without so much as a bonjour. They spend a week in Paris, and then cross France off the list!

I was an American living in France, too, but I did not at all fit into that schema. I visited Paris often, but I lived far away in Tonnerre, a small town in Burgundy, surrounded by an empire of vines and prairies. I arrived there two years ago, assigned to the high school as an English language assistant. Tonnerre represented a number of firsts in my life, as someone who had grown up in New York City and lived in East Coast cities for my entire life. Tonnerre was the first place I lived that was properly rural and remote, far away from the political, economic, and academic centers of the West.

Tonnerre has borne the brunt of the outsourcing that hit France in the ’80s. The factory that manufactured electronics closed decades ago, and the population has declined from a peak of 5,500 to around 4,500. The center of town hollowed out, too: There are entire stretches of the city that resemble abandoned main streets in the Midwest. Like so many French towns in the wake of deindustrialization, Tonnerre clings to life as an administrative center. The town is the largest population center for 20 miles, housing the schools, a hospital, tax offices, banks, a train station, and other services. Aside from that, there is ample work for those who want it—for not much money and at great physical strain—in the vineyards.

I never imagined staying there so long when I arrived. The first months were solitary and depressing as I grappled with the intricacies of spoken French and ran afoul of cultural norms. But now Tonnerre embodies for me not only a dream, but the American dream. And to me the American dream remains far more vibrant in this tiny French town than in my native land.

Much of this has to be due to the landscape itself: the Arcadia of rolling fields and meadows. The vastness of the place inspires hope in and of itself. Sometimes as I walked in nature, or rode my bike along the Burgundy Canal, I found myself humming tunes from Western-themed American musicals like Oklahoma and Paint Your Wagon. “Plenty of air to swing a rope, plenty of heart and plenty of hope.”

The visual splendor, however, cannot fully explain the contentment I felt. I became an adoptee of this town, or at least some of its residents, what in French we call a piece rapportée (an honorary member of the family). The local high school receptionist noticed how solitary I was when I first arrived. She and her partner, the local deacon, conspired to “kidnap” me one evening and take me out to dinner. We understood each other with great difficulty in the beginning, but she became a second mother to me—Maman Corinne. She introduced me to her sister, henceforth Tante Laurence, who then connected me to her son. His friends, also in their mid-20s, expanded their circle to include me. I was integrated into the town at record speed. This was striking to me given that I had always been an outsider in Rockaway, Queens, where I had grown up as a Poindexter Jew among athletic Irishmen. I was even involved in the local politics of Tonnerre—one of les jeunes ran for office and I sat on his electoral committee.

I felt that there was an almost innate sense of solidarity and camaraderie in this small town, where strangers regularly took the time to help and guide me. I originally lived in the teachers’ dormitory, which shut in March 2020 with the first coronavirus lockdowns. I was about to be rendered homeless when a student’s family came to the rescue, putting me up in their house in a nearby village for two months. I took regular walks along the canal with their son as he practiced his English with me and I my French with him. We read Tom Sawyer together. My contract at the high school was up that May, and I snagged a better job, teaching English at the regional university in Dijon. I stuck around in Tonnerre because it was the first place that I had really felt at home.

I was unequivocally the stranger in Tonnerre. I opened my mouth and with the words flowed a pronounced American accent. I tripped over some nuances of French pronunciation, sometimes to rather comical effect. I learned French as a written language, from textbooks and novels and newspapers, and consequently often used turns of phrase from an entirely different era. The owner of the local bar, Brigitte, liked to say that I spoke a français litteraire. I was Jewish in a place where the closest synagogue was 100 miles away. I am also visibly handicapped, blind in one eye and cockeyed in the other. One could have easily spotted these differences, but I never felt any prying eyes, let alone hostility. I remained something of a novelty.

France’s provinces are often scoffed at as hotbeds of reaction, a reputation that dates to the 19th century, when peasants were seen as obstacles to the creation of a republican form of government. The men and women of this region are caricatured in terms that would be familiar to those of us accustomed to American elite discourse toward the interior of the United States. Former President Francois Hollande once described la France profonde as a place populated by les sans dents (toothless). But I did not discover there the bumpkin racists and lumpen proletarians of Parisian clichés. Tonnerre was the most tolerant community I have ever lived in, on either side of the Atlantic Ocean.

At the climax of Oklahoma, Auntie Eller stands on a chair at the hootenanny and declares: “I don’t say that I am no better than anybody else, but I’ll be damned if I ain’t just as good.” Such is the implicit credo of that town. Tonnerre is not a classless society, but it is a place where contacts across lines of class, education, race, and other divides are frequent and natural. There were no constraining strictures of hierarchy. The town’s scale and instinctual egalitarianism defies any posturing of prestige.

Of course, it is not paradise; Tonnerre is susceptible to concerns about mass migration, mostly in this case from Eastern Europe. The welfare state, which guarantees a de facto universal basic income through the Revenu de Solidarité Active (Active Solidarity Allowance), does encourage sloth on the part of some, content to sit on their hands and drink the hours away. But the social questions that appear so dire in Paris around immigration and integration assume a far more benign form there. The presence of mixed-race or mixed-origin couples is entirely pedestrian; their proportions appear greater there than in the United States. I credit that in large part to the French state’s resolute insistence on race-blindness and norms of universal citizenship. What is the American dream but the right of men to emancipate themselves of the past, of their origins, and self-create in a society that does not insist on affixing labels to them? This notion remains far more alive in France than in the United States, where racial entrepreneurs and political opportunists proceed with their anti-liberal and inhumane endeavors.

But this ideal still finds itself embattled, in France, and not only because the racial entrepreneurs of the university are building a bridgehead here. Life in small towns and villages has been menaced—despite the state’s boasting about its environmental record and its promises to boost train service to the far-flung regions of France, the government has in fact abandoned places like Tonnerre. Three decades of disinvestment have seen the closure of basic public services, for example the local maternity ward, which shuttered at the end of the ’80s. Whispers continue about what will be the next to disappear: the tax office, the emergency room, even the high school. Meanwhile, the local train stop, located on the line between Dijon and Paris, receives no service before or after rush hour, with the last train for Paris or Dijon departing at 7:30 p.m. (the trip to Dijon takes about an hour, and about two hours to Paris). Tonnerre’s trains might be the oldest rolling stock in the entire country, rumbling at deafening decibels and sporting the logos of defunct administrative units.

Discontent is mounting, finding political expression in the rising vote share for the Rassemblement National, the far-right party led by Marine Le Pen and long called the Front National. The ascent of this nefarious faction is too often attributed to the supposed racism or primitivism of the party’s voters. The RN certainly has plenty of racists and antisemites in its ranks, and the success of the far right would be disastrous to this nation of human rights. But explaining these electoral patterns in terms of racism is far too reductive and too exculpatory for the proponents of such an argument. Tonnerrois are often responding to the state’s abandonment, and the sense of being invisible. I have friends and members of my adoptive family, who vote for the RN. Some of these same individuals have mixed-race children or family members. I have seen them jump out of their seats to rebuff racist comments. A vote for the RN is for them at once a bid for attention and a rebuke of mainstream parties that have failed to address the legitimate grievances of those whose lives have been upended by social and economic transformation. A public-spirited elite class would engage in more self-examination before sneering at such voters as rubes.

Now that autumn is here, I have returned to the United States and headed back to school. I feel that I have been uprooted, but I will certainly not forget that town; I return as often as I can. I hope that others, in France and in the West, will remember Tonnerre—and all the Tonnerres—as well.

Daniel Solomon is a doctoral student in history at the University of California, Berkeley, and the English-language editor of K., the European Jewish Review. He can be reached at [email protected] and on Twitter @DanielJSolomon

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