Friday, November 9, 2007

Ce n'est pas trés catholique...

I like Catholics. Really, I do. I’m even married to one. But living in a Catholic country can be a strange and mystifying thing sometimes. Take, for example, the cathos (pronounced “kato”). In the bourgeois suburbs just to the southwest of Paris, an area I am far too familiar with (OK, I admit it, I live here), you will occasional run into a family that simply does not fit into any of your preconceptions of France or being French. For one thing, the members of this family are virulently un-chic. They are, if fact, dressed like something out of a 1950s issue of Life Magazine. The mothers, who are generally sans make-up, tend to favor cardigans, practical shoes, below the knee skirts, and prim pearl necklaces. They are often preternaturally blond and fair, with freckles. Their children, and there are many of them, also have a distinctive look. The girls are usually miniature versions of their mothers, wearing dark sweaters, white Peter Pan collars and Mary Jane shoes. The boys—I kid you not—are often wearing knee pants. Even in the middle of winter, their little calves are stubbornly exposed to the elements. The fathers are less striking, just conservative versions of middle class men with purposefully bad haircuts. As anachronistic as they may seem, they do not seem to feel the slightest discomfort in a world of skin-tight jeans and exposed navels. In fact, they carry themselves with a lofty, somewhat smug air, and have warm, condescending smiles at the ready.

At first, I just stared. “Who are these people?” I wondered, “and where in the world do they find knee-pants in this day and age?” My friends patiently explained to me that these were cathos, i.e., devout Catholics. “But I don’t get it,” I protested, “my mother-in-law is practicing and she doesn’t dress that way…and why are so many of them blond?!” “Well, you see,” they went on, “many of them are breton, from Brittany, a rather damp, cold place where there are lots of, conservative, well, cathos.” “But it’s like a cult,” I sputtered, “they all dress alike! Is there some sort of special store where the sell clothes and equipment, like for girl scouts?” This induced chuckles, but no further information.

I still don’t entirely get it. Not only that, there is a housing complex right near where I live that its full of them, so some of the kids (that is, those that don’t go to private Catholic school) go to my son’s school. In fact, this complex is owned by the French military and is housing for army personnel. It consists of couple of apartment buildings ringed by a bunch of houses for large families. That is, for the cathos. Because, it seems, the military is infested with them. One of my son’s friends lives in this complex, so I’ve had the weird experience of walking into a gated community where dozens of children are running around, most of whom look like escapees from an episode of Leave it to Beaver.

Why are there so many cathos in the French military? Well, why are there so many born-again Christians in the US military? It’s the same mentality I suppose. Still, it seems so strange. Who would have thought the French could be so straight-laced? I thought it was genetically impossible, but no. Perhaps the dark underbelly of French culture is actually….prudish?

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