It was cold and damp the morning Amaury picked me up at the hotel. I had just moved to a small French town in the Cognac region to take a new job. My household goods hadn’t caught up with me yet so I was still living out of my one suitcase. And winter wasn’t over yet.
He had been invited to go bird hunting on an estate about an hour away, and his wife hated hunting. She agreed that he should take “the new American” in her place, while she enjoyed Sunday with her parents.
All I had with me were my soft grey-green designer boots. Not a problem: Amaury said we’d stop by his family’s weekend property where they had all sorts of hunting and fishing gear. We’d surely find some rubber boots that would fit me there.
This was a big occasion to him: to be invited to the estate of a count. I don’t remember how he got the invitation, maybe a college buddy was a relative of the count … but it was a big deal.
Once we drove up the long drive after the gates, an impressive building loomed ahead. In front were dozens of people … we were a bit late because of our detour. Someone handed me a shotgun.
Hunting with the Count
Soon everyone was headed out into the fields in back, into open expanses that went on forever, into the soft hills. I lost Amaury somewhere in the turmoil and found myself falling back to walk with an elegant older man who was moving slowly, his shotgun in one hand, a cane in the other.
He and I never hunted that day. We heard lots of shots in the distance. But we were deep in discussion of international politics and economics. Wars. The French. Latin America (where I was from). Somewhere along the way I realized he was the count.
He asked me about my family. I said, being comfortably in the moment, “Well, I hear stories about my family moving to Brazil after the U.S. Civil War, something about gun running. Who knows? Maybe there were still revolutions to be supplied?” He smiled. “Well, those things happen. I sort of got involved in that business when the French were in Lebanon.”
We walked back when the hunting was over. The women and children seemed to be headed in one direction, but the count said, “Come with me” and I ended up in the smoke-filled living room, perched next to the crackling fire with a cognac in hand, enjoying the company of the men.
After solving all the problems of the world, we were called into a room with a massive, long table. The women strained to participate in the adult conversation at our end as they fed the children fresh bread and jam at the other. The men (and I) shared wonderful hams, sausages and cheeses accompanied by a fine port.
As we were leaving the chateau that afternoon, the count insisted Amaury bring me back the following Sunday so we could hunt again, this time on horseback. “Of course,” we said.
The Role Class Structure Plays
In the car, Amaury asked how I had been accepted so quickly at that level of society. He had been trying for years to establish a dialog with the count and had always felt a wall.
It gave me a chance to think through what had happened. The remnants of a class structure do exist in places like France, separate from the regular economic divisions of rich and poor.
The chateau was run down, the leather furniture in tatters. For all we knew, they could have been on the brink of bankruptcy, but that did not change the distance between fellow Frenchmen. While France had certainly changed over the centuries, the rigid old class structure still existed.
I believe I escaped being “pigeon-holed” by the count and his entourage because I was an unknown factor, an outsider: highly educated, well-spoken and socially comfortable anywhere. Growing up, my family had been rich and broke. But it didn’t change who we were.
Why We Are Fortunate
I realized then how fortunate we are in America. Sure, elitism exists. It does in every culture. But it’s not a class structure. That elitism is based on power, and anyone can obtain power in differing degrees if they have the brains, the will … and maybe a little luck.
As you build your financial future, call upon that mindset. Somewhere in your makeup is an inherited belief that as Americans we can make of our lives what we will. (And if you’re not American, borrow our belief.)
Some will have a harder time because of educational opportunity. Or parental beliefs. Or the environment we are raised in.
But look at the many people who have started with nothing, in horrible circumstances, and have made it to the top. Theirs are rags-to-riches stories. But they’re not facing cultural obstacles as their counterparts in other countries might.
Let me know in the Comments section below how you see your “real financial opportunities.” What, if anything, do you think might be holding you back? Whatever it is, figure out what you’re going to do about it. You deserve to thrive, you know.
Bio: Sharon O’Day fixes financial lives. She is a tell-it-like-it-is money expert with a successful career in global finance, plus an MBA from the Wharton School. Today she specializes in getting entrepreneurial women over 50 back on their game so they can have more money, less stress and more joy. With her “Over Fifty and Financially Free” strategies, they take actions that lead to their ultimate goal: financial peace of mind.