I have a thing for vintage French porcelain inkwells: their pleasing shape, their patina and their charm when used as a mini vase holding a single bud. I wasn’t aware of the cultural memory they held until the other day, when I stopped by to see my friend Catherine. Stacked neatly on the living room table were small bound notebooks, carnet as they’re called in French, workbooks from Catherine’s elementary school days. We sat and looked at a few of the books. I was in awe. Her penmanship as a young child was a work of art. “I loved writing with a feather, didn’t you?” she reminisced.
There are moments as a foreigner when you’re met with the blank stare. I’m all too familiar with that look (like yesterday when I visited the local garden center looking for steel edging to border my garden beds). It’s a look that says that whatever you’ve just attempted to communicate is so incomprehensible, that you must be an alien. I’m sorry to say that this time around, that stare came from me. A feather? I thought I had misunderstood the French. “What do you mean a feather?” I said. The blank stare was mirrored back to me. “You didn’t learn to write with a feather?” she asked. My mind raced back to Septembers past and the smell of freshly sharpened #2 lead pencils, then kept rewinding all of the way back to our founding fathers and images of the signing the Declaration of Independence and Thomas Jefferson holding a feather pen. I was trying to make sense of it all since Catherine is my age and we’re not THAT old!
“Oh, I understand,” I said “a fountain pen?” But no, not a pen, not a pen tip, it was a feather… or more accurately a quill. She explained to me that their desks had ink wells on each corner (we see these slant topped desks at the brocantes), one for the black ink and one for the lavender. She preferred the lavender (and still does). A certain level of proficiency was required before graduating from feather to fountain pen.
Catherine said she thought that it was a better way to learn because it demanded focus and concentration before committing feather to paper. Nowadays, she felt, students can too easily erase their answers and start over. Absolutley erase, I thought to myself. Mistakes are a natural part of learning and the sooner we figure out a better solution, change it and move on, the better.
We had stumbled on an interesting cultural difference and we talked more about it. It seems the French system favors a stricter approach with a harder line being drawn when a mistake is made. My cultural upbringing embraces a try and try again philosophy. The effort being encouraged and rewarded along with the accomplishment.
Exploring and understanding our cultural programming and motivators is one of the most fascinating things about living in a foreign country. However, foreign can also refer to a group of un-like minded individuals within our own cultures. I think we build better communities and a better world when we engage in a dialogue about our differences and then allow room for them to coexist.
As for me, I think I’ll stick with my trusty #2 and it’s worn down eraser, but I plan to honor my friend and her feather pen by placing a rose filled-lavender stained inkwell next to the dinner plates on our summer table because, let’s face it, a pencil would never have the same effect.