This is not Post 852. In fact it is not a post at all, but rather an article I wrote for the Sydney Morning Herald (SMH), which its Opinion Page editor declined to publish (“too long”, he said . . . ). It is at once a précis of my life, and for those who may be interested, an answer to the question why I have spent most of it in France (of course, if you couldn’t give a ratz, read just the first half).
I look like Hitchcock, have an iffy ticker and use a cane, but I am by and large (with the emphasis on the latter) in good health, as I face the final furlongs in the race I’ve been running these last eight decades. Although I can hardly be described at present, in the falsch-German words of the old “Saturday Evening Post” as “proceeden mit breaknecken speeden”, I will pursue the metaphor by saying that the Finishing Post is in sight. So, for what it is worth, this will serve as the Epilogue to my Blog, as well as an “Adieu” to its past, present, and I trust, future readers. (I would have to be a Blind Believer to say “Au revoir”; that, my friends, is what I call a “venenum in cauda”). Enjoy what’s left of your life : my agenda exactly !
“THE OTHER KID FROM KOGARAH’S FRENCH CONNECTION”
Clive James may not appreciate my title’s plagiarism from his “Unreliable Memoirs”, but I grew up in Kogarah, on Sydney’s south side, at the same time he did. (The first line of his book reads : “I was born in 1939. The other major event that year was the outbreak of World War 2.”). Since he left Australia, he has spent most of his life in London. I’ve spent most of mine in France. Everyone knows Clive and appreciates the books and articles he has written, as well as his TV programs and interviews that have entertained millions. No one knows me, apart from the Fortunate Few, readers of my outrageous Blog, which I shall inevitably plug later in this article. But having spent 27 years in Australia – exactly one third of my present 81 years – and no less than 44 in France (topped off with 10 in the States), I thought my extraordinary decision to choose to live in France rather than Australia might interest compatriots who have found the French both fascinating and infuriating. So if ever you have wondered about people who eat snails, frog legs and cheese that stinks to high heaven, who are considered the most arrogant and rude people Aussies encounter during their European odysseys, and who very nearly managed to make Australia French, you might find the following worth reading.
I should begin by letting you know that this is not my first contribution on this subject in the pages of the SMH. Exactly twenty years ago the editors were kind enough to publish my “Let’s Be Frank about France” (Friday … March 13, 1998). So I shall not repeat here what I said there, though I modestly submit that it provides information and insights which complement those that follow.
A summary C.V. might be helpful to put into context what I have to say, two decades later, about France and the French.
After primary and secondary education in local Catholic schools, I decided – having done my L.C. (H.S.C. today) at age 15 – to become a Franciscan priest. Nine years later I was ordained by Cardinal Gilroy in St Mary’s Cathedral, and after three years’ ministry (including preaching in said Cathedral), I was sent to acquire a doctorate in Theology at the Catholic University in Paris. At the end of my studies, the Revolution of 1968 included my personal revolution to leave both the Franciscan Order and the priesthood to marry (celibacy no longer made any sense to me), and to accept a job in the U.S. as a Religious Education Director and University Professor of Religious Pedagogy. For ten years I was a liberal lay-theologian in the employ of the Church. No one except the priest who had first employed me knew that I was a former priest, dispensed from my vows by Saint Pope Paul VI.
My French wife decided, after a decade Stateside, that she had had enough, so we came back to France with our three children, aged 9, 7 and 5. I had no money, no job, no future – and a tourist visa valid for only three months. I was however lucky enough to find a job in a training institute where I learned the trade of training managers in Management and Communication. After seven years a French multinational in Information Technology, CAPGEMINI, invited me to become its Associate Director of Human Resources for France, and later a branch-manager and a co-founder of its corporate university. I retired in 2001.
Though a firm believer during my American religious teaching career, I gradually realized, as I faced the challenge of surviving in France, that I had become an atheist. I abandoned the faith I once had and had promulgated for the previous twenty-five years. After my retirement I self-published a book (“From Illusions to Illumination. The Itinerary of a Franciscan Priest from Catholicism to Atheism”), and launched a blog (blindfaithblindfolly.wordpress.com) dedicated to sowing terminal doubts in the minds of people I called “Believers on the Brink”. Recently I wrote the last of the 850 blog-posts permanently available – in English – to readers all over the world. I hope that one day, before or after I die, an editor will decide to publish the best of my book and blog, perhaps under the title “Why I, a Priest, Chose Atheism. A Professor of Theology’s Reasons for Rejecting Religion”.
So much for the background essential to understanding how I came to spend over half of my 81 years in France.
I do not claim to be objective about my adopted country. I am proud of my nom-de-plume : “Frank O’Phile”. But I have few illusions about this fabulous country, its past glory and current challenges, even about its “unique” contribution to the world’s cultural wealth, as well as about its pretentiousness and crimes against humanity (notably in its colonial history, its practice of slavery and the crimes of the French Revolution). Rather than analyse these well-known facets of the phenomenon which is France, let me tell you why I enjoy living here and why I have for so long called the Hexagon home.
- Let’s face it. Sydney (even … Melbourne) are beautiful, livable cities with assets that are things of beauty and a joy forever for locals and visitors alike. But Paris is Paris ! My hometown here, L’Isle-Adam, fifty kilometers north of the capital, was aptly named by Honoré de Balzac his “terrestrial Paradise”. Bidart, near Biarritz, site of my other home On Zeee Beeech is – literally – a Surfer’s Paradise. The natural beauty, historic culture and exquisite gastronomy of the Basque Country are unlike anything in Australia. Aussies are justifiably proud of their Lucky Country. But the quality of life in France is incomparable.
- The 2000 years of Gallic-French history cannot be compared with that of Australia’s 250. France is drenched in history, cities and castles, monuments and museums, nowhere to be found Down Under. “Blasé” is a French word, but it has never applied to the permanent presence of the past which I experience wherever I go in France.
- We are proud of our Australian poets, playwrights, painters, authors, engineers and scientists, but French culture, art, literature, philosophy, architecture and scientific discoveries are appreciated all over the world.
- Even the French recognize that they and their “patrie” are not perfect. They are not proud of many aspects of their long history. They do not pretend to have forged a model for other countries to emulate (though Napoleon was convinced that they – he – did). But they do have much to be proud of, admitting, in passing, that they invented the word “chauvinism” … . They were the world’s pioneers in the domain of liberty, equality and fraternity. They continue to count on the world’s stage.
- In case you’re wondering, it will be no surprise for Australians to learn that my militant atheism has met with more tolerance, even indifference, here than in Australia. Had I returned to Sydney with my pregnant wife and later abandoned the faith, we would at the time have become social outcasts. Thank God (?), Australia has come a long way since then.
- I have to admit that the French remain frustratingly … French ! They continue to think that because a mere 250 million people speak their language, it deserves equal status with the lingua franca that happens to be Australia’s mother-tongue. And that damned accent they have when they are obliged to speak our (impossible) language (60% of which is of Latin-French origin) ! Why can’t the French, Professor Henry Higgins could have said, why can’t the French practise, when trying to speak English, the tonic accent (“ca-TAS-tro-phe”, not “ca-ta-STROPHE”) ?
- “Enfin” (at the end of the day … ), one could ask of this unique, lovely, blessed country : “Quo vadis ?” Many of us, less than two years ago, thought we were witnessing an historic breakthrough of the tradition born in 1789, the dichotomy of the Right and the Left. Emmanuel Macron may not have been the Messiah, but the majority of the French pinned our hopes on this young, brilliant businessman, suddenly become our President. In the last two months, the country has taken an enormous step backward, with the “yellow vests” demanding a more equitable distribution of the country’s wealth (largely justified) but also a repositioning of priorities where the environment, if not our physical survival, would take a back-seat to the necessary handouts to the hard-strapped. Violent riots, recalling those I witnessed as a student in Paris in 1968 (if not those I missed in 1789), have forced the government to give in. The largely leaderless movement is now promoting government by referendum !
A former French Minister of the Interior – and Mayor of my hometown here – declared some years ago : “L’avenir n’est écrit nulle part” (“The future is written nowhere”). I won’t be part of much of it (four score and ten would be a good score, even in cricket). But I feel privileged to have been part of its recent past.
FRANK O’PHILE, a.k.a. Frank O’Meara