The Playground

When I first moved to Paris in 1989, I quickly realized that I understood nothing about how France worked, or what motivated the French. Call me naive, vas-y. I had been working in the United States, Latin America and the Caribbean, and I thought the big cultural split was between developed and underdeveloped countries. I didn’t expect Managua to act like New York, but I did think Paris might have some similarities. Yet I kept hitting walls, wrong-footed and tongue-tied. After five years of reading, listening and talking Paris, I began to glimpse the submerged cultural iceberg of what I did not understand. It was big, and dark, but I was young, and optimistic. I will get this, I told myself. I will be able not only to function in French society, but to succeed. It is just a question of time.

Twenty years down the road, I surrendered. This novel is my act of rendition. I finally accept that there will always be things about France and the French that I do not understand. And that led me to thinking about other faultlines that are pretty entrenched in any society. Male vs. female perception is a well-traveled galaxy of miscommunication. And teaching in universities, I noticed that the 18- to 20-year-olds I encountered were nearly a different species from my age cohort of 50-somethings. This is not a positive-negative judgment (I heard that, calm down), but an observation of values, behavior, goals. So suddenly this cubic field of daily misunderstanding came into focus. I thought I’d try to share it.

The title comes from Nietzsche, in Beyond Good and Evil:  “Making yourself understood is hard […] and we should be sincerely grateful to anyone who cares enough to achieve some sublety as an interpreter. But as for ‘good friends,’ who are always too comfortable and think that as friends they are entitled to be so:  it is wise to start by granting them elbow room and a playground for misunderstanding – then there is still an occasion for laughing…”

When misunderstanding isn’t being tragic, it can be pretty funny. Sometimes you have to dig into that sharp-edged Nietzschean irony to find the humor. I’d love to see or hear examples that you’ve  encountered. Send them on over and I’ll post.

Posted by: Ellen Hampton

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