There is a social psychological hypothesis that was tested in extensive research a long time ago. The hypothesis is called the Contact Hypothesis, and it was proposed as a way to reduce intergroup prejudice and conflict. The general idea is based on the intuitive notion that if you just get to know someone, you will like him more, or at least hate him less. The reality is that contact only works favorably under social conditions that are in fact wildly difficult to achieve in the real world. Contact can lead to greater harmony if the following conditions are met: the groups or people are of equal status, they have shared goals, intergroup cooperation is required, people of the two groups have to actually interact, and there is recognition of common laws and authority. When those conditions hold, people from different groups start to shed their preconceptions and prejudices.
There is another barrier to shedding preconceptions as well, and that is called the “confirmation bias,” which is a way of thinking common to most people, and which I have mentioned before. The confirmation bias is best defined in the words of a European friend who lived for a while in the Bay Area, when he told me, “Everyone who visited me from Europe saw in California what they expected to see, not necessarily what it was like. There was nothing I could do to change that.”
How true. And nowhere is the confirmation bias more gratingly money-making than in those books written by Americans (or sometimes Brits) who live a Year in Provence, or else a couple of years Under the Tuscan Sun. Here we have people who have (mostly) not yet learned the language, who for some reason (married or ex-patted) have money not earned in the country they are now living in and writing about. And they tell tales based on their preconceptions and wonder. Or preconceptions and distain. Whichever, it is all the same to me.
My cousin Mary has lived in Florence, Italy, for more than 30 years. I was visiting her at Christmas one year while I was still living in France, when she received said book, Under the Tuscan Sun, as a gift. She swiftly transported the book into the garbage, and went on to open the next gift. I had only lived in France (indeed in Provence) for six months at the time of that episode, and I was struck. Impressed with her decisiveness and prescience. I understood better years later when I read (part of, because I couldn’t take it any more) Eat, Pray, Love. “Really?” I thought, “In Naples we are just going to hear about the pizza? How about the trash that the striking city workers didn’t pick up? Your publisher not paying to report on that, huh?” That sounds bitter, but the veneer of stereotypes was starting to play with my mind.
In between Under the Tuscan Sun and Eat, Pray, Love, I cracked open some more books, because I thought we, the author and I, were going to bond over our experiences in France. But we never got past the markets or grumpy artisans or neighbors. Books like Almost French, A Year in Provence, French By Heart. I was troubled, as a Social Psychologist, that we never got past anything. No common goals were developing. Preconceptions were being cemented forever. This last book, French By Heart, was even written about the town in France where I lived for 13 years. I know that it took me at least four years to be fluent enough in French and French culture to actually understand five or six hours of Sunday dinner conversation. How could someone write a book during a four-year ex-pat stay that had anything new or insightful to say beyond a grumpy neighbor or family travails? Or wine, for God’s sake?
The authors of these wretched books all have a tenuous relationship to France or Italy (or the US if they are writing the same version here). The woman who wrote Almost French married into a Parisian’s life and he wrote the cover letters for her job applications. It wasn’t clear that she needed a job. So, what the hell, she spent a lot of time at the markets around Les Halls. Normal. And there were a few nut cases hanging around Les Halls. Normal. What do we learn here? And as you already know, various other authors retired to whatever country, got paid to jot down notes about their difficulties with the local artisans, and then moved out of the country because the locals actually read the book.
The only person whose writing about France I can read is David Sedaris. He isn’t laughing at France or pretending to understand it. He of course is laughing darkly about himself.
And then, he moved to England.