‘An Education’ offers far more than a glimpse into foreign travel, culture for impressionable young women

November 30, 2009

For any of us women—especially those who still consider themselves young or young-at-heart and long to experience the thrills and pleasures that travel and foreign cultures provide—the recently released Sony Pictures Classics film “An Education” is a must-see. (Here in the United States, it’s in relatively limited release, which is a shame because it’s truly one of the smartest, most thoughtful films to hit the big screen in ages.)

I recently saw it with one of my best girlfriends from university, someone who knew me before I became completely obsessed with all things international. But because my friend knows me so well, she knew I’d be one of the few people who would be clamoring to see it with her. (Another very good girlfriend, one whom I’ve traveled abroad with and spent countless hours sharing my dreams of seeing the world, demanded I call her as soon as I saw the film so we could dissect its deeper meaning in each of our lives.)

Here’s the gist: Set in suburban London in 1961, “An Education” is told from the perspective of Jenny (played by the luminous British actress Carey Mulligan), a bright and inquisitive 16-year-old in a private high school. Although she’s being pushed toward an Oxford education by her strict but well-meaning middle-class parents, she’s drawn to all things French. She loves the language, tossing off phrases en français, lounging in her bedroom while listening to sophisticated French chanteuse Juliette Gréco. And she longs to visit Paris in this drab and dreary post-World War II London era. Enter the mysterious and dashing David (played to perfection by actor Peter Saarsgard), a man in his mid-30s (!!) who offers her and her cello a ride home during a pounding rainstorm.

You can guess where this travels from here: David introduces her to a sophisticated world filled with hazy smoke from French Galoise cigarettes, his glamorous but shady friends, late-night supper clubs, and art auctions. Eventually, he get her parents’ permission to take her away for a weekend in Paris. Who of us—regardless of our age—wouldn’t dream of playing dress-up and strolling along the Seine River arm-in-arm with a handsome homme who wants to show us the finer cultural things in life? But it wouldn’t be a film if David didn’t turn out to have fatal flaws. I won’t give them or the ending away, but suffice it to say despite the fact he offers entrée into a glamorous second life, he’s hardly what he seems.

“An Education” resonates with me on so many levels. Although I’m now WAY older than Jenny was in the film, I still have that sense of wanderlust about the world. And although I’ve literally been around the world, there’s still so much I want to experience and to learn about foreign cultures and places and languages and music. Like Jenny, I’m passionate about everything French and try to incorporate as much of it into my daily and often stifling Midwestern life as much as possible. And although I’m slow to admit it, I’m often naïve when it comes to the underlying truth about men, especially when they seem to appear out of nowhere, almost as if they walked off a movie set, all mysterious and fascinating (and speak in some sexy foreign accent—you name which one).

I’m feeling way too introspective these days, having survived recent intense encounters with a couple of European men. While both were charismatic and worldly and well-traveled and smart, neither turned out to be what I first thought. That doesn’t necessarily make them bad people. But often we project onto others—friends, parents, children, lovers—what we crave and need them to be at that point in our lives. I’m reminded of the Maya Angelou quote my sister used to share: “When people show you who they are, believe them.” That would have been great advice for Jenny in “An Education”—and Lord knows I should have kept that in mind before getting involved with either of my two.

But part of learning—yes, of an education—is understanding when we’ve allowed ourselves to get caught up in the fantasy of what COULD be, not what is. And part of it is having the good sense and self-awareness to move on, even when our smarter selves wonder how we ended up in such ridiculous situations in the first place. Rather than beat ourselves up, we should acknowledge and yes, even APPRECIATE that even painful lessons can ultimately be good for us—IF we actually learn from them.

If you’re not intrigued yet, check out the film review written by my always-thoughtful former Chicago Sun-Times colleague, Pulitzer Prize-winning film critic Roger Ebert. What spoke to me were these lines from his October review: “So young women, let this movie offer useful advice. When a man seems too good to be true, he probably isn’t—good, or true. We all make mistakes when we’re growing up. Sometimes we learn from them. If we’re lucky, we can even learn during them. And you must certainly see Paris….”

How many of you UrbanTravelGirls does THIS resonate with? Even as I enter my fourth decade, I see I’ve still got PLENTY of learning to do, even as I pack my passport and venture off into places unknown.

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8 Comments Leave a Comment

  • 1. Kelly  |  November 30, 2009 at 6:07 pm

    Bonjour Maureen,

    Thanks for reminding me that this film was out. I saw the trailer for it several weeks ago but had forgotten about it. Your post wants me to put a flask of Beaujolais in my purse and make a beeline to the theater to see it. It sounds like a lesson in reality: if it sounds too good to be true, it usually is. But we must all take chances at some point. As one woman who had risen the ladder of success recently told me, “If you’re not losing, you’re not taking chances.” That doesn’t mean one must strike out all of the time but the key is to learn from one’s mistakes and never make the same one twice. To me, that advice should be used not just in business but relationships as well.

  • 2. urbantravelgirl  |  November 30, 2009 at 6:28 pm

    YES — what a lesson in reality this film was! But what a wonderful hour and a half… I’m sure you’ll find yourself as transported as I was. (And some Beaujolais would be oh-so-appropriate as a beverage — who needs Diet Coke?)

    As my mom always says, “You live and learn.” But too often I feel I do way more living than learning. I’m determined to reverse the trend in 2010 — and BEFORE!


  • 3. Cynthia  |  December 1, 2009 at 9:55 am

    I will have to look into seeing this film. I am often times wary of people but it took a few “educational” lessons from others for me to be this way.

  • 4. urbantravelgirl  |  December 1, 2009 at 2:04 pm

    Isn’t THAT the truth? At 40, I think I’ve become more skeptical of people in GENERAL. It’s sad, really, because it would be nice to think that “what you see is what you get.” But it’s especially ironic that it took me so long to get here — and I’m a journalist trained to be skeptical of EVERYTHING! But better late than never, right?

    Thanks for sharing,

  • 5. SDG  |  December 11, 2009 at 4:32 pm

    Hello! I’m enjoying the archives in your blog so much. I wish I could’ve caught this film when it was out. Learning should be alife long process and pursuit. We are not static beings and if we are, we’re in big trouble.

    I learn something everyday and @ times it’s hard, but very worthwhile.

  • 6. Folake  |  December 17, 2009 at 4:24 am

    Hi there and greetings from one sistagirl to another. A colleague from work passed your URL on to me the other day and it has been quite fascinating reading your blogs and learning all about your travels.

    I’m from England (grew up in Nigeria) and now call Japan home. Been living here for almost 8 years and that has been quite an “education” in itself.

    I really do enjoy solo travel as it gives you the chance to meet more people and have different experiences other than those you would have if you were travelling with friends or a partner.

    I was in Europe over the summer too but was in the Swiss Alps which were amazing. Was also in Germany hooking up with friends and I had a great time.

    Off to Thailand in a couple of days in a desperate bid to escape the cold winter, at least for awhile. Have you travelled around Asia much? Holla if you ever make it to Japan. I know a great sushi bar ; )

    Peace out,

  • 7. urbantravelgirl  |  December 23, 2009 at 12:07 am

    Folake, DOMO ARIGATO for visiting my blog and sharing your story!!! I’m inspired by all YOUR travels! You know, I have never been to Asia, despite countless trips back-and-forth and across Europe. But Japan is the place that MOST fascinates me, and DEFINITELY is at the top of my wish list. I will be SURE to holla at you when (notice I didn’t say “if”) I get there. Need to cash in some frequent-flier miles and travel your way!


  • 8. urbantravelgirl  |  December 23, 2009 at 12:10 am

    Hello, SDG — and thanks for writing! Not sure where you live (are you in the States?), but “An Education” is still playing at some artsy theaters around the country. (It’ll never get the play of “Avatar,” but what can you do?) Hopefully it’ll be available on Netflix or through Blockbuster or one of the other DVD rental houses.

    I’ve now seen it TWICE at the cinema and loved it equally as much the second time around — especially since I’ve been listening to the amazing early ’60s soundtrack nonstop! Hope you’re able to catch it at the theater or on a DVD near you before long.


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