28 December 2011

Le shopping

Here we are in that last shopping week of the year, when you would think we are all tired of shopping, but in fact, Aix is hopping with shoppers and window-lickers (in French, window-shopping is the highly descriptive window-licking, lèche-vitrine).  The little huts in the Christmas market are still up and open for business, as are the children's rides, and the holiday lights continue to shine.  I have not seen much by way of after-Christmas sales, although after Christmas appears to be the beginning of the sale season for household towels and linens.

Shopping these past few months has shown us how the retail trade here appears to be much less in favor of the client or customer than we are accustomed to.  We have had numerous social interactions with shopkeepers and clerks that seem to suggest that making the sale does not seem to be the top priority.  Here are just a few examples.  A few days before Christmas I stopped in at a local specialty wine/food shop that I have patronized several times and which was open earlier than usual for the holidays.  This is one of those shops throughout France that is closed at lunch, (pity the lunch time shoppers), and which opens late on Mondays or not at all.  I was hoping to purchase some wine accessories and asked for a particular color that I had seen in the shop window.  You'd think I was asking for the world, given the responses from the sales clerk and the matron positioned behind the cash register.  And then when the item was located elsewhere and rung up, neither offered to gift wrap my items, yet such service was offered to me previously.  (This also happens to be the shop with ne pas toucher signs all over; don't touch the goods!)  In Paris last week, we were at a shopping center along Boulevard du Montparnasse that was open until 8 pm, and while standing in a check-out line at one shop, we noticed that the security guard stationed by the front door was turning away customers already at 7:30!  (So the sales staff would not have to work too many minutes past closing time?)  Another time, a few months earlier, I needed some assistance at the local Monoprix department store in Aix.  After I finally understood that I should go to the accueil (welcome desk),  I was stunned to find the grumpy woman there shaking her head at me and telling me she could not understand me so therefore could not help me.  Now, why would the staff at such a store in a town like Aix, that attracts lots of tourists and is full of international students, not be able to offer a friendly welcome and make an effort to understand its customers, regardless of the language barrier?  It's a little surprising that she was not able to speak English since I've had the experience elsewhere in Europe where large department stores specifically hire multilingual sales staff.  Maybe the customer service clerk chose not to speak English!?  We've had several instances when that has happened, when we have muddled along in French and strained really hard to understand some important transactional details that were being explained to us, only to discover that the clerk could speak and understand English.  For example, we struggled at our bank branch for many months, and on one visit, the bank manager suddenly said something to us in flawless English.  Our jaws dropped, and then closed, and we have never heard her speak English again.  Of course, we WANT to use French as much as possible, but sometimes, especially in matters like banking, if some important point could be clarified in English, like the fact that we have a limit on cash withdrawals each week, we would be ever so grateful! 

On the other hand, I've had some examples of superb customer service.  Just this week, a friendly frame-shop owner patiently listened to my mangled French, helped me select a simple frame/mat for a large photograph of Aix that I had brought to her shop, and agreed to frame the print in less than 24 hours!  I received a text on Christmas Eve morning that the gift was framed and ready for pick-up, and it was beautifully wrapped for me.  Similarly, a few weeks before this, I stopped in at a linen shop for some French linen rideaux (curtains) for the front windows of our new apartment.  After some exhaustive discussions with the kind young shop clerk (whom I didn't understand fully), I purchased a sweet set of white linen roman shade style curtains edged with lace for the kitchen (they attach with velcro, so the inward-opening windows are not obstructed), and 2 long linen drapes in alternating off-white and beige stripes with ties at the top for the salon/salle à manger (living/dining room).  I was already sighing with happiness about the exquisite linen I was buying when the store clerk surprised me by telling me that I could return my curtains for a store exchange, if they for some reason did not work out.  (That is the only time I have ever been apprised of a return policy at any French shop.)  Needless to say, I shall give these shops my future business, and I even popped in the next day to thank the young sales associate after I'd successfully hung my drapes.  Another place I take my business regularly, even though it's out of my way and is not our regular branch is to the Aix post office just outside the old town.  I truly enjoy going there because the staff are friendly, patient, able to understand broken French, and plentiful.  Not bad for a branch of the civil service!  Finally, to be fair, I am happy with the grocery delivery service at Monoprix, and I do shop at the store regularly.  We've had good luck and bad luck with several other delivery services, because apparently, delivery to one's front door is not necessarily automatic, if you live on the troisième étage (fourth floor).

Clearly, just like in other places, there is good customer service and there is bad customer service.  What seems to be different from our shopping experiences in the United States, where the customer is always right and poor customer service is a death-knell for business, is the feeling that some French retailers do not care about their customers.  Yet, these shops remain in business, some for a long time, and the French patronize them.  That suggests that there is perhaps something else going on, that goes beyond basic economic principles, something more...yes, sociological.  That is, shopping, here and elsewhere, may be governed by different kinds of social rules.  Making shopping easy for the customer, being personable or even grateful, these are simply not a necessary part of the interaction between seller and buyer here.  The French also perhaps appreciate and look for certain quality markers in their shopping more so than we do in the States.  For example, there is a baker in town who attracts customers not because the customer service is terrific but because he has the prestigious Meilleur Ouvrier de France title (see the wikipedia entry explaining this uniquely French status symbol: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Meilleur_Ouvrier_de_France)  Other shops may sell small batches of artisanal or French-grown products or they may have a well-known family name associated with their business.  It may be that the French simply value these marks of quality or status more than they do customer service with a smile. 

08 December 2011


In my last posting I mentioned how important the social environment is to sociologists in their attempts to understand social behavior and patterns.   While I stretched the meaning of social environment a bit by referring to the ways in which the physical environment, namely the weather, affects human behavior, I am much more in line with typical sociological thinking in this post when I consider residence.  Residence refers to the socially created environment in which one lives, that is, typically the neighborhood and its social characteristics.  For example, this quarter in my online Social Inequality course, my students and I read about the ways in which racially and ethnically segregated neighborhoods affect the occupants' opportunities in life, their personal security, and even their health outcomes.

My family has just made a change of residence, moving into a new apartment in Aix (emménagement means moving in and déménagement, moving out).  We are still denizens of the centre-ville (the city center, which consists mainly of the old town), although our new quarter is the villeneuve (the 'new' old town, by a century or so).  Our building is a hôtel particulier which means that at one time the entire building was a private residence (not a hotel as we understand it in English).  Now there are 6 units carved into this 4-story building.  There are at least three other former private residences on our street alone with intricate facades while ours is much less ornate and seems newer.  A hôtel particulier often has a grand entry and the ground floor apartments may have high ceilings and elegant spaces as they would have been the reception rooms or salons, while the floors above would have been bedrooms and other private spaces.  We, at the top, on the fourth floor, may in fact be occupying the servants' quarters, as a French friend pointed out; our ceilings are a little lower and windows a little shorter than in the apartments below us.  The French call our floor the troisiéme étage (third floor), since they don't count the ground floor as the first floor; I can tell you that whatever floor we call it, there are six flights of stairs (six landings) between the street level and our floor, because we made the trip up and down countless times last Thursday, Friday and Saturday!  I believe we have the largest apartment in the building though as we have over 125 m2 of living space, trois chambres (three bedrooms), a typical French kitchen (see below), a living/dining room, a wc, a bathroom/laundry room, another bathroom with toilet, and two balconies, all spread over two floors.  (The French call a two-story residence a duplex; that's another cognate, same word in English and French but different meanings).  One of the boys' classmates marveled that our apartment is almost like a house!

We are lucky indeed.  The light is incredible in the living spaces, and we have some lovely views, of the lace-curtained apartment windows across the street and peaceful inner gardens at the back of the apartment.  The balconies are rare luxuries (relatively few exist in the old town) but they were a priority for me so that we could sit outside during spring and summer meals and I could step outside during respites in my online teaching work.  Being at the top of the building, we can't hear neighbors (although the ones below us hear us walking around; we shall try to tread more lightly in this old building.).  As is typical, we have to buy our own appliances, and you can see from the photo that I am still short an oven and dishwasher, but Julia Child churned out some amazing meals in her small Paris kitchen sans frigo, (no refrigerator!), and I believe we can make do in ours.  (Check out this brief interview of the production designer who reproduced Julia's French kitchen for the film Julie and Julia. http://www.themagazineantiques.com/news-opinion/current-and-coming/2009-08-05/behind-the-screen-a-look-at-julie-julia-with-mark-ricker/)

The location of our new building also remains very convenient to local shops and the boys' school, even if our orientation is slightly different.  I found a new boucherie/charcuterie (butcher shop/delicatessen) nearby and the boys were thrilled by the familiar foods at the Asian food store off the périphérique to the east of us (the ring road around the old town).  I have now also ordered my first online groceries in France, complete with livraison (delivery) all the way up to my apartment's front door!

Such benefits, proximities, space, and light all mean that we are relatively privileged in our residence and that our social and other opportunities are enhanced as a result.   Some consider Aix itself a bit 'high-falutin' as we say in colloquial American English, or like a mini-Paris, according to another French friend, if prices and/or egos are any indication.  We know we are fortunate to afford to be here.  As for residence-based health outcomes, while I did have a a sick boy at home yesterday, Jori's sore throat and croupy cough had little to do with his living conditions and much more to do with attending a very big school with lots of students and air-borne viruses.  In fact, thanks to his new living conditions, Jori was able to rest comfortably all day in his new bedroom's built-in loft (the French call this a mezzanine), and he was well enough to return to school today.

29 November 2011

Le temps

A central principle of sociology is that the social environment has a great deal of influence on human behavior and social attitudes.  Who we are is in large part a factor of our social environment.  That said, the physical environment also affects human interactions and behaviors, even if this environment in and of itself is not a central sociological concern.  I myself have paid attention to and been affected by le temps (the weather)  for most of my life, perhaps because much of this life has been spent in the northwestern coastal state of Washington, in the U.S.  The western side of this state gets a good share of rain each year and is subject to unpredictable environmental conditions because of the proximity of the Pacific Ocean so I am accustomed to rain and variations in weather.  The ways in which Pacific Northwesterners dress, interact, spend their time, and talk, all are influenced by the weather.  My family continues to be obsessed with weather, and we often check the weather news from home.  This past weekend we saw what seems like perennial news footage from the Pacific Northwest of the U.S.: salmon swimming across the road after another series of heavy Thanksgiving weekend rainstorms.  (See http://shelton.komonews.com/news/pets/692468-we-have-salmon-over-road ).

We had a little bit of weather excitement here in the South of France, a few weeks ago, in the form of a very wet tempête (storm) , which led to un vigilance orange (an orange alert, one away from the most severe alert) for the Provence-Alpes-Cote d'Azur région (province), as reported by Météo-France (the French national weather service).  Major roads and fields were flooded and the driving affected my parents' return to Aix from Mougins where they had been vacationing.  On that November weekend, the rainwater gushed out under the traditional roof tiles all over Aix, filling gutters and straining the capacity of city drains.  Sports events were cancelled even, something that rarely happens back in rainy western Washington.

We've also experienced a few small mistrals, the famous wind that screams southward down the Rhone River valley to the Mediterranean many times a year, and which cleans the air and brightens the light here.  The winds I experienced many weeks ago were cold and uncomfortable and people seemed to stay indoors.  Some mistrals can blow between 1 to 3 to 7 days, which has been known to make people mad here; now that is an extreme case of one's physical environment affecting human society! (But gray skies and constant rain can do this too.)

I'm still waiting for a proper 3- or 7-day mistral, or even one from the northeasterly direction that is supposedly very cold, to tell me that it is nearly winter.  The holiday display on the main boulevard in Aix, along Cours Mirabeau, is lit and the chalets de Noël (christmas market stalls) are in operation, but it feels so....warm, on this last week of November 2011.  Last Saturday afternoon, we watched most of our son's rugby tournament at Berre L'Etang (about 30 minutes west of Aix) without our coats on until the sun began going down, and the boys finished the games with faintly dirty knees but nothing like the mud they would have been caked in if this had been a rugby tournament back in Washington state.  I ate lunch, outside, with a friend in Arles yesterday, wearing my sunglasses because le soleil d'hiver (the winter sun), well, it's really bright.  The upside is that with such unvarying, dare I say, ennuyeux (boring) weather, there is a great deal of predictability in our activities and the brightness does keep one's spirits high in the shorter daylight hours of winter.  And, I shall appreciate the dry weather this week as our family lugs suitcases across the center of Aix to our new apartment.

20 November 2011

Beaujolais nouveau

This past Thursday, the French gave thanks....for the release of this year's Beaujolais wine (and they call this release the Beaujolais nouveau, the new Beaujolais).  In Beaujolais country, in Lyon, for example, Thursday was a social evening of wine tastings in restaurants all around the city.  In Aix, the celebration is considerably smaller, but we went out for a delicious dinner with our Lyonnaise friends and drank a bottle of this year's new wine.  (For my food-loving readers, I had magret de canard-duck breast, with a delicious puff pastry encasing chévre-goat cheese, a fig and some lard-French bacon, and a cabbage and carrot salad on the side.  Délicieux!)   The funny thing about Beaujolais is that everyone we've talked to, French and otherwise, dislikes Beaujolais wine!  So the release of this very young wine (a friend likened it to grape juice) is largely a marketing ploy by the Beaujolais vintners.  Apparently the wine is popular in Asia and the commercial release is more appreciated in Japan and in other locales than it apparently is here.

The Beaujolais actually would probably go very well with turkey, the center of another celebration of thanks, which we Americans will recognize this upcoming Thursday, and which I have the task of marketing, in a way.  On Thanksgiving, our children will go to school as usual, but they will spend their lunch hour enjoying a Thanksgiving feast at a local restaurant with about 40-45 Collège Mignet section internationale students.  I have been asked, as the token American parent, to speak about the Thanksgiving tradition to these children.  I haven't decided exactly how I will present Thanksgiving, given the myths and realities associated with the origins of our current turkey feast.  (That shared meal between the starving pilgrims and the generous Wampanoags was probably not as friendly, innocent or gracious as we were taught as children, nor did it likely involve fat turkeys, mashed potatoes or glorious pumpkin pies. And, the later ramifications, for the emerging United States, are often celebrated while those for native American societies, are usually overlooked.)  I also cannot avoid seeing the sociological implications of a holiday in which the day's rituals reinforce traditional gender roles and bring to fore intense familial relationships and rivalries that threaten to upend the turkey dinner itself (see Jodie Foster's film Home for the Holidays).  My poor students have to re-examine their own experiences of Thanksgiving each fall quarter, and I'm afraid they never think about Thanksgiving in the same idealized way again.  

The French seem quite interested in the idealized view of Thanksgiving, perhaps because of what they have learned from Hollywood films and other media.  Several French friends are eager to taste a Thanksgiving meal chez nous (at our place) while another French friend seems to recognize that it is an important family holiday.  For our part, we'll be curious to see how the French chefs will interpret the Thanksgiving meal at the local restaurant next week.  Le dinde (turkey) is available here but I haven't seen any 10-12 pound birds at the charcuterie/boucherie (meat shop/butcher), nor have I seen many French ovens that could even accommodate that, let alone the side dishes.  (We'll wait to try after we get settled into our new apartment and our pots and pans finally arrive, something for which I will be truly grateful!)  For dessert at the restaurant, a French parent is making and bringing in the pumpkin pies, which she must be making with the pumpkin-like courges (squash) we've seen at the market.  I shall do my best to offer an engaging explanation of American Thanksgiving, perhaps first by framing it with the idea that many societies have rites of thanksgiving particularly after harvest time.  In this way, Thanksgiving is a typical social ritual.  Then I will recount the loose roots of the American version and the ways in which this day of thanks is celebrated today, with food, family, and American football.  Perhaps that last part will grab the attention of at least some of the kids.

13 November 2011

Un avis de contravention

One of my favorite nonfiction writers is Peter Hessler, a journalist who has written evocatively and sociologically of his time in China, first as a teacher of English and then as Western journalist.  In his third book about China, Country Driving, Hessler shows us how the dramatic rise in automobile ownership in China has changed the way the Chinese move around their country and how their values are changing in regards to transportation and public safety.  Some of what he recounts is relatable to the earlier Western experiences with automobiles when these were new, but the other stories that Hessler shares suggest that there are aspects of driving in China that are uniquely Chinese.

Indeed, there do seem to be driving cultures in every society (and within the U.S., too, regionally, where Washingtonians have been known to complain about 'California drivers' with their impatient tailgating, and we can compare each state's expenditures on transportation by looking at  the conditions of the highways.)  In France we have also noted  how people drive, and how driving is regulated, channeled, and controlled here.

For example, French drivers seem to be fairly impatient and aggressive, yet creative, given their penchant for parking and stopping anywhere, even in the middle of a one-way single lane street.  There is a fair amount of horn-honking, and cutting in, rather than the defensive driving we are taught in traffic safety classes in the U.S.  Foreign cars seem to confer status here as they do in other societies; we noticed on our recent mushroom picking trip that ours was the only car in the caravan that was French, and we have seen more Ferraris and other luxury cars here than we ever saw in Seattle.  This is astonishing given that cars cost more here, and gas costs up to 4 times as much as in the U.S.

My spouse Allen has been driving here for 3 years, since August with our own used car which we bought at a good price from from a departing American expat family.  See Allen's hot wheels in the photo here.  The car is a Peugeot 307W, widely known as a family wagon, and seemingly available in only a pale green for the model year we have.  Allen likes its diesel engine, great fuel capacity, and its handling.  Hot it definitely is NOT!  And, like most cars here, it has a nice scrape on one side which we acquired in the tight underground parking garage near the prefecture in Marseille.

In most cities, there are central parking garages, underground, since on-street parking is at a premium.  We park our car in a central garage every day; there are about 5 such garages in Aix, the largest one with a capacity of nearly 1000.  With the narrow streets in Aix's old town, there just isn't much legal on-street parking available.  That said, public garage parking and the rarer private parking are quite expensive; a co-worker of Allen's has suggested that monthly parking in Aix is more expensive than in Paris (it ranges from 100-200 euros a month in Aix).

Driving itself involves following a series of rond-points (roundabouts) which are very common here at many carrefours (intersections).  They take some getting used to, as my dad and father-in-law discovered on their visits this fall, but the roundabouts do seem to work well, keeping traffic flowing.  The problem is that they don't always seem to be signed well, but should you miss your exit, you just keep driving around again.   In fact, the road signage in France is a bit inconsistent.  Many people here use navigational devices in their cars because the many small roads here are poorly marked and are hard to find on maps.  We use a program on Allen's phone.  Indeed, the rural roads and highways are virtually undistinguishable, as one may feel like one is driving along a lovely, idyllic country road with no shoulder and barely two lanes, but the speed limit of 90 km/h suggests otherwise.  Coming towards a fast-moving car in the other direction on this 'highway' with just inches to spare in between is unnerving to say the least.  The navigational devices also make it possible to avoid ending up on an impossibly narrow centre-ville (city center) street amid throngs of tourists, an equally nerve-wracking experience.  While we might find such old European town streets as quaint, these are thoroughfares in many towns, and the locals zip right through them.

The autoroutes (freeways) are generally quite distinctive as they have tollbooths along them, and are in generally good condition for speeds up to 130 km/h and generally better signed.  We pay for all this, but we can't seem to discern a consistent rate for the tolls, so we just have lots of change available or use our credit card.  The freeways also have speeding cameras at regular intervals for which there are signs that give drivers ample warning, so you know to adjust your speed.  Yet, these speeding cameras have confirmed for us that there just is a great deal of inconsistency in French driving culture.  While we see creative parking and driving with seemingly little traffic regulation (we hardly ever see tickets being issued for traffic violations in town), and all kinds of roads in all kinds of widths, and lots of roundabouts with varying numbers of exits jutting out of them, the French are not terribly flexible about particular driving rules, such as speeding on the freeway, AND their transportation bureaucracy is remarkably efficient in this regard.  Just this week, Allen received a very important piece of mail from the government, which I was sure was his permanent residence card, but which was in fact, un avis de contravention...a speeding ticket.  Our hot rod was photographed with a freeway speed camera going 76 km/h in a 70 km/h zone near Toulon on Nov. 1, 2011, and the license plate that must have appeared in that image was connected to Allen's car registration, et voilà (ta-da)!  Just 10 days later, a 68 euro ticket for driving 6 km over the speed limit appeared in our mailbox.  While the 6 km/h over the speed limit may seem like splitting hairs, the instructions on the speeding ticket state that if we pay the ticket within 15 days of the transgression, we pay just 45 euros, or if we overlook it for 45 days, the fine goes up to 180 euros.  Not only do we have the option to go for a reduced rate, the website for the telepaiement par carte bancaire (online credit card payment) is actually available in English!  (That must mean that there are an awful lot of English-speaking drivers who get caught speeding here...)  Finally, we also have the option of disputing the fine, but unlike in the U.S. where I might very well write a persuasive letter about our good-faith effort to drop to the suddenly lower speed limit, knowing what we know about the workings of French bureaucracy in general, we are just going to pay the 45 euros and drive on.

04 November 2011

L'histoire s'écrit

In an earlier post, I mentioned La Toussaint, the All Saints holiday that the French celebrate on Oct. 31 and Nov. 1, and which schoolchildren enjoy as part of a lengthier school vacation. In the days leading up to the two day holiday, the French converge on cemeteries to leave colorful pots of chrysanthemums and other fall flowers on family graves, and attend special church services honoring the dead, while others take short family vacations.  A week later, on November 11, France remembers military and national history by commemorating Armistice de la Première Guerre mondiale (Armistice Day), when the fighting ended along the Western Front in World War I (the U.S. equivalent celebration being Veterans Day).  As with most holidays, these two French autumn holidays are heavily rooted in family, tradition and history.

Coincidentally, history was written over our first La Toussaint weekend, in two different ways.  We marked a family historical event while on a vacation with the visiting grandparents along the Côte d'Azur (a.k.a. the French riviera).  We stayed in Mougins (pronounced moo-jans), a town 5 km inland from the coast, which has an old labyrinthine village perched high atop a steep hill, where the buildings are so close together in some places that you can nearly touch two buildings at once with both arms out.  The old village was a favorite haunt of Seattle friends who had lived nearby on an earlier expatriate assignment, and we had fun finding the places of historical significance to them, as we marked our own family's history there too, by celebrating my dad's 70th birthday.

On the afternoon of his birthday, we enjoyed a lovely millefeuille on the terrace of our hotel unit.  (Millefeuille literally translates as a thousand leaves, and gastronomically, as many, many thin layers of pastry with custard sandwiched in between and an iced top and often topped with red currants; we call it a Napoleon in English.).  That evening we had a French dinner at a local bistro where my dad experienced another historical first; he was serenaded with a bon anniversaire à vous (happy birthday to you) sung in French by the chef and waitstaff!  

The other historical event was much bigger, or at least more globally significant, in that it involved the convergence of the top 20 world leaders in Cannes, which is adjacent to Mougins.  (Cannes is pronounced can, to distinguish it from a northern city Caen, which is pronounced caun.)  Cannes was one of our intended sightseeing stops, and we hadn't realized that political history was going to be written there over the next week (Jori shows us that the writing of history was indeed the theme of the world conference), but we knew something big was happening on our arrival because of the many motorcades of French police vehicles along the autoroute (highway), and the helicopters flying around the area all weekend.  On Monday, we took a bus into Cannes and saw the security preparations underway near the vieux port (old harbor) and at the casino/conventional hall.

The city was beautiful, expensive, and glamorous, even in autumn, and the Mediterranean Sea really was blue along the coast.  Alas, we did not see any stars, Hollywood or political, or our fellow Washingtonian Bill Gates, who was a special guest of French President Sarkozy.  Most G20 delegates and guests arrived in Cannes after we had already left to return to Aix (and the movie stars had left by the end of summer), but Obama and other world leaders have appeared on French television for the past three days.  Whether or not they accomplished anything of historical significance at the meeting, we shall have to wait and see.  In the meantime,we have the French armistice day holiday ahead of us next week.

26 October 2011

Un week-end champignons

Ritual is an important element of social life, one that marks certain milestones in life, or passages in a year, and that creates what we in sociology call social solidarity, or that sense of connection with others.  Autumn comes with many such rituals, related to harvest and food as well as to ancestors, that herald the return of winter and dormancy.  Here in France, l'automne (autumn) is marked nation-wide by La Toussaint (the All Saints holiday that gives school children up to 8 days off).  The actual All Saints holiday is November 1, and the day before, All Hallow's Eve is a holiday as well (we know it as Halloween in the U.S.), but the children have been off since this past Monday (Oct. 24).  In Aix, we haven't seen much by way of jack-o-lanterns and goblins, but on Wednesday as we were walking throughout town, we saw one Spiderman and later, one princess, walking along with their families, and we also some large pumpkin-like squashes at the market.  We further noted that the florist adjacent to the local cemetery was over-stocked with mums and other flowers in anticipation of families making their annual pilgrimages to commemorate their ancestors this upcoming week.

Another ritual of autumn in France involves the foraging of mushrooms.  Last weekend, we had the amazing opportunity to join a group of French families on a mushroom picking expedition on a mountain near Lyon.  Last week (October 16-23) happened to be the semaine nationale du champignon, (the national week of the mushroom), and we foraged for two hours before returning to celebrate our success at a beautiful home on another hillside outside Lyon.  Apparently, the harvest was smaller than in previous years, as this group of old school friends has been foraging together for several years now, but Saku and I particularly enjoyed the thrill of finding the elusive chanterelles, with their yellow and gray colors and vein-y undersides!

All in all, our group collected enough mushrooms to provide 30 of us with a healthy dollop of chanterelles cooked in cognac, crème fraîche, salt and pepper, alongside some hearty parmentier de canard (shepherd's pie with duck), and green salad adorned with some raw cèpes (porcini mushrooms) that were also found.  I might add that this was all accompanied by a great deal of red wine, a cheese course, as well as a sweet, cherry-red Lyonnaise dessert called tarte aux praline (praline pie). Delicieux! 

We are really grateful to have been able to experience such an important seasonal tradition with native French families.  Not only have our culinary senses been rejuvenated, so too have our French vocabularies and our understanding of how food and ritual connect French friends and families to each other.  It was a truly magnifique week-end champignons.

24 October 2011

La ballon ovale

In general, France is crazy about le football, that is soccer, but during the past few weeks we, and the rest of France, have become engaged by le rugby, the sport played with la ballon ovale (the oval ball).  We watched several televised games in the Rugby World Cup tournament, paying attention to French and New Zealand teams as they advanced through the rounds to the final game.  We had the amazing opportunity to spend the past weekend with two French families (more on that in a future post), and together we watched the Sunday morning finale de la coupe du monde de rugby (the rugby world cup final).  Alas, the All Blacks of New Zealand beat Les Bleus (the blues) of France, 7-8.

We've learned a great deal about rugby, although we can't say we fully understand it yet.  The terminology is all new: scrums, flyhalfs and touches (and the French equivalents!), and the rules still baffle us, but what we have come to understand is that rugby is a sport that fosters a great deal of camaraderie among teammates.  The teams sang their national anthems with such gusto, and they seemed to be really excited to be playing each game, which was refreshing given how many professional athletic teams these days seem to approach their games rather mechanically, as jobs that have to be performed.  In fact, the New Zealand team has an unusual ritual called haka before its games that is meant to show its team spirit and its fierceness to its opponents.  We were greatly amused by the arm movements and tongue-wagging associated with the Kapa O Panga haka.  Usually, the opponent team stands in a line staring hard at the All Blacks' ritual, but in the final game, France's team decided to join arms and began walking towards the All Blacks, creating an arrow formation which was much remarked on in the international press, French and otherwise.  (See New York Times article: "For New Zealand, a Rugby World Cup on Home Soil," By Emma Stoney, Oct. 23, 2011 http://nyti.ms/mOAhrZ)

The team spirit of rugby is something that has made Jori feel really welcome on his rugby team as well.  In an earlier post, I told how Jori was recruited by the AUC rugby club (Aix University Club) to join its U-13 rugby team, and he has spent the past 1 1/2 months training twice a week, taking the bus across town to the rugby field, first with me or one of his visiting grandparents, and now alone.  Two weekends ago, his club hosted an afternoon tournoi (tournament) in which the teams played multiple short 10 minutes games.  By the end of the tournament, Jori was deeply into the action, getting a few passes off, centering some scrums, and even getting tackled.  We shrieked in glee, Il a la ballon! (He has the ball!).  The French mothers who had been giving us kind smiles on the sidelines throughout laughed with us.  Earlier, one of those women had approached us, apologizing in French that she'd like to talk with us but that she doesn't speak English.  We were so thrilled by her friendly overture, babbling in French, pas de problème, parlez en francais s'il vous plait!  (No problem, please speak in French!)  We had a nice, if halting, conversation with her and learned that all the men and boys in her family seem to play rugby.  And this past week, I walked Jori to the bus stop to wait for the bus with him, and one of his teammates approached and suddenly, my presence was unnecessary.  Likewise, on Friday, we were enjoying an outdoor lunch in Aix, and another teammate walked past, exchanging excited hellos with Jori.  We have really liked the camaraderie that the club and coaches foster among the boys and the families, including us despite the language barrier.  We are looking forward to the upcoming team social events, where we hope to get to know more families. 

14 October 2011

La sécurité

One of the benefits of living in a city like Aix is that we and our children can move about fairly easily and en sûreté (safely).  Our boys, like many other French middle schoolers, can wander through town and sit at cafés without supervision and walk or bus to their sports' activities independently.  (Have I said earlier already that I absolutely relish our carpool-free life, even as I miss our U.S. carpool buddies!?)  A safe public milieu is a hallmark of many European cities, although all cities, of course, have their dark sides.  What is particularly interesting is how differently societies assess safety and risk, and how some elements are accepted as reasonable risks in one place, but not in another. 

I have been noticing such differences between French and American safety thresholds over the past few weeks.  Just a month ago, we wondered about property security when we saw a beautiful basement rental apartment in the city, with barred windows and a rare garden, encircled by a very high metal fence but an awkward gate.  Sécurité incendie (fire safety) came up in another apartment we viewed; it was a true aerie with tremendous views from the top of the 5-story building, but its winding, narrow stairway meant that both moving our things in and ourselves out, (in case of a fire), would be very, very difficult.  Many residences here in the center would not meet general U.S. fire safety codes.  The freeing of U.S. student Amanda Knox from Italy last week has brought up discussions of la sécurité personnelle (personal safety), especially of young women and foreign students.  (There are 5000 such students in Aix each year, according to the Aix City News, Oct. 12, 2011 edition; I wonder how many know the local emergency telephone numbers, of which there are several.)  The Knox case also stirs up the issue of political security; do you know how to reach your national embassy in case you are arrested!?

Then today, Allen and I saw the most remarkable traffic and public safety exercise.  The local police had cordoned off small sections of Cours Mirabeau (the grand boulevard in Aix) to allow schoolchildren outfitted in fluorescent yellow vests to practice safe bicycle riding around traffic cones.  Our boys' bicycle helmet-focused, primary school P.E. teacher would have fainted; in this publicly-organized and sanctioned event, directed by the police, none of the Aixois children were wearing casques de velo (bicycle helmets)!  In fact, the only people we see regularly wearing helmets are the bicycle cops in Aix, and motorcycle and motor-scooter drivers.  But then again, these drivers dart in and out of traffic in such a way that the helmets may not be enough to protect them.  On the freeways, motorcyclists are allowed to drive in between lanes and cars, at rapid speeds, and I have seen and experienced a number of near-accidents where cars were about to change lanes onto these riders.

In regards to this last motorway practice, my spouse made an important point, how some societies just choose to accept a certain number of traffic fatalities that might result from certain behaviors.  After all, at one time, no one wore bicycle helmets or seat belts in the U.S.  Some of this was due to the lack of rigorous study of the effects of wearing helmets or seat belts, but one can also see this as a matter of different social contexts and social priorities.  Today, in the U.S. we are inching towards making the use of cell phones illegal while driving, yet our legal driving ages are generally lower than in Europe and we accept higher blood alcohol percentages in our drivers.  This is all highly sociological, this notion that there can be significant variation among societies and across time, in terms of what is deemed safe or acceptable risk.  We can also explain the decisions about acceptable risks sociologically.

Some sociologists would explain certain safety risks as essentially functional or even rational for society.  That people get hurt more often, or worse, die, because of certain practices, may be weighed against say, the lower personal cost of owning a motorcycle or scooter vs. a car in Europe, or against the fact that injuries and fatalities do in their morbid way, create jobs and social positions for other people.  In contrast, other sociologists might suggest that the accepted risks favor and hurt different groups of people, perpetuating the inequalities between these groups.  In general, those with scooters may be less economically well-off and thus less powerful, and perhaps more expendable than say wealthier drivers in their relatively safe Mercedes sedans.  If we consider the case of foreigners abroad who are arrested, the 'get out of jail free' passes tend to go to those from wealthy families and countries and with the right skin color and looks.

There are other sociological arguments too, suggesting that in today's highly complex, intertwined, post-modern world, we simply have too many choices in front of us, and none of them are perfect.  What we decide on one issue unavoidably affects our choices and decisions on other ones, and so we make decisions that we think will work the best in our current circumstances, but the calculus we use will likely not be the same as someone else's in another social setting.  In my litany above, I didn't even mention food safety, but that presents an excellent example of such overwhelming choices: what kind of food should we offer and eat, how cooked, how clean, how raw?  The French have chosen to accept the risks of offering steak tartare (raw beef), foie gras (goose liver) and some moldy fromages (cheeses), because they value haute cuisine and the sensory experiences of eating, while in the U.S., we are not willing to take the risk of serving undercooked beef anymore, given the greater concern we may have for the political or economic costs arising from a potential outbreak of food-borne illness.  These decisions affect other French and American choices, about the ways we raise our beef or fowl, the access and costs we create in our healthcare systems, and the messages we give our children about food.

On that note, I shall end by sharing that our family's personal choice in regards to food safety is that we accept the risks associated with French dining, and we do so happily every Friday night after rugby and soccer trainings.  (This week, raw fish, Japanese style, at Seito).  Bon appetit!    

09 October 2011

Une féministe

Many weeks ago, back in August, I wrote about the social niceties, the daily bonjours and bonne journées (have a good day greetings), and my appreciation of being greeted as Madame.  I am afraid I will have to qualify that appreciation now.

You see, unlike in my social and work circles in the U.S., it's rather unusual here to have a different last name than one's mari (husband).  While throughout much of Europe, women do keep their last names upon marriage, here in France, at least in the South, keeping one's name is not common.  I don't think I know a single French married woman here who has a different last name from her spouse, and the handful of women I have met here who have their own last names or hyphenated ones are in fact expatriates and not French at all (or they are not married).  A new French acquaintance actually thought Allen and I weren't married because of our different last names.  She assumed that we were in a concubinage (a legal status indicating unmarried cohabitants; as Allen pointed out, wow, that French word has very different connotations in its English usage, doesn't it?)
Where the name issue really has become apparent is in my dealings with la banque.  We finally went in two weeks ago to get my name onto the bank account, with our passports and marriage license.  We left with assurances that all would be ready in 10 days.  In less than that time, I began receiving mail from our bank that was addressed suspiciously to Mme Anne Carter and sure enough, my new bankcard says Mme Anne Carter and I'm sure the checkbook will too.  That is not my legal name, nor does it appear on ANY of my identification.  Only Allen's grandmothers ever addressed envelopes to me as Mrs. Anne Carter (or occasionally, as Mrs. Allen Carter).  Generational habits die hard, and I do know that my last name is hard to remember and spell.  But here in France, there seems to be an unspoken assumption that a married woman's identity is through her spouse, despite what it may say on the countless legal documents that she has to carry.  Allen has decided that I need a new i.d. card that identifies me as his femme (wife), just so I can retrieve his mail and the like, while another acquaintance, also with her own last name, carries her marriage license around with her!  To Allen's credit, he told the bank clerk that his wife is très libérale, to see if that would convince her that she really should change the bank records to reflect the legal name of her client's féministe wife.  Much to my surprise, this seemed to do the trick as the account now lists my legal name.

In many ways, this naming tradition reflects the persistence of traditional gender roles, here in the South of France and maybe more widely.  The same acquaintance who thought Allen and I were perhaps concubines, also pointed out that it's fairly unusual for married women here to show deep commitments to careers.  She suggested that for a married woman to put her career on the same level of her family (or higher) is anathema to most French.  Family is supposed to be the first priority for married women, and taking care of one's family is seen as a full-time job.  I can see WHY it is a full-time job, since managing daily life is just a bit more work here than it is in the U.S., but the social expectations that the work should be a woman's main avocation feel archaic.  My own free-lance teaching work is incredibly fulfilling and engaging and a large part of who I am, yet as I try to balance it with the expected women's work here, I frequently feel a bit inadequate by French standards yet resentful too of the expectations.  This past Wednesday, when the boys have just a half-day of school, I was pre-occupied with work all morning and ran out of time to prepare the boys' lunch, again, so my poor kids each had to have une sandwich au poulet (chicken sandwiches on a baguette) from the boulangerie (bakery), rather than the 3-course meal they are accustomed to at school.  Then, they had to take themselves off to sports trainings, one on foot, the other by city bus, while I did some quick housecleaning, all the while grumbling and thinking about how I'd rather be doing my teaching work.

The French have recently had national broader conversations about gender roles and expectations, especially in light of the DSK scandal (the former IMF director, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, allegedly sexually assaulted a hotel maid in NYC this past spring but the case was thrown out), and of the fact that DSK was replaced at the IMF by a French woman, Christine Lagarde.  I'm not sure if these conversations have led to any changes in attitudes or behaviors, as Lagarde herself seems to be presented in the media as much for her cool Parisian looks and fashion sense as for her political and economic stature.  (Incidentally, she took the name of her first husband, but did not change names when she remarried.) I am looking forward to having my own conversations with French women about gender roles. 

29 September 2011

Une pendaison de crémaillère

We had a lovely crémaillère (housewarming party) last weekend, and we decided that we would stay in this elegant apartment on rue Papassaudi at least through June.  The apartment is very comfortable and is beginning to feel like a home.  (A pendaison is the chain that holds the crémaillère over the fire, and cooking dinner over a fire like that warms up the house, doesn't it?)  Much of the comfort stems from the fact that we can control the heat inside the apartment, during the summer and even now, as we have air conditioning, which is quite a luxury here. 

Unfortunately, our propriétaire (landlady) has other plans for our appartement (apartment), and we must be out by January at the latest!  This means I am now having to plunge into the world of real estate, something I was able to avoid because this furnished apartment was recommended to us by an acquaintance and we made the agreement privately.   Without personal connections though, finding an apartment is a challenging and expensive endeavor in France.  Real estate agencies work for the landlord, so the renter must pay the agency a finder's fee (usually one month's rent or more) and the renter's deposit also is often held by the agency (and not easily refunded).  The agencies post their listing together on the Internet, but are slow to respond to email queries (they don't really work for the renter!).  Phone calls work much better, but require a little more fortitude especially with one's poor French skills.  I THINK I have an appointment to view one apartment à vendredi à quatorze heure (Friday at 2 pm), and we'll see tomorrow if I got that right.  Today, I came upon a service that connects landlords to potential renters directly for a much lower fee and visited the spartan office and found no suitable listings at the moment.  Even with this organization, you get shafted as the renter, because the fee is not contingent on whether you find a suitable property and sign an agreement, but merely gives you the right to connect with the landlords of properties you are interested in over a six month period. 

Renters also have many upfront costs.  Many apartments do not come with the fully-equipped kitchens.  Renters may have to buy refrigerators, stoves, ovens, dishwashers and microwaves.  Likewise, laundry is not a given.  So, those items add to the cost for renters significantly, as does the renter's tax that we just found out about, that must be paid if one is renting at the end or beginning of a calendar year.

Then there are the considerations about where to live.  We are in an elegant apartment on the deuxième étage (3rd floor, but the French call it the second floor because the ground floor is not the first floor but the ground floor), with 3 bedrooms, 4 bathrooms, high ceilings, a nice floor plan, a full kitchen and laundry, and even a tiny balcony in the center of the building where the sky is visible if one looks upward.  And we are right in the middle of the old town.  Our street is quaintly narrow so we can easily see into the apartments of the college students across the street (if my neighbor in Seattle lived here, we wouldn't even need a phone to call each other to wave from our respective living rooms.  We could just open the windows and say bonjour!)  I wouldn't want to drive up in my car, although delivery cars use this street every morning.  Allen parks our car in one of the nearby city parking garages, of which there are several around the périphérique (the ring road that circles Aix).  Monoprix, my grocery store, is just around the corner, the barber is in the other direction, the boys' school is 5 minutes away, and at least 5 bakeries, 2 wine shops, and as many lingerie shops are all within a very short walking distance, for those last minute hankerings.   There are some lovely and affordable villas and maisons à la campagne (in the countryside) surrounding Aix, but this shifts the lifestyle considerably.  Some come with piscines (pools), but may require more furnishings, and would almost certainly require an additional car, and more time management.  And, I do so enjoy the foodie M.F.K. Fisher's chronicle of her time in old Aix many years ago (see Two Towns in Provence), living not far from where we do now.  She too was captivated by the energy here.  

So, while I have now completed most of the boys' school and sports-related paperwork, and my fall quarter community college course is underway, a new fall project is upon me, one that will surely expand my French skills, as I deal with agents, and potential landlords, and who knows who else.  In addition, we think our shipping container has or is about to arrive in port, so we will have to deal with local moving agents here, to pay storage of the contents for a few months or arrange to have our 39 boxes sent here, and then schlep them all ourselves to wherever we end up living.  All of this is beginning to make the atmosphere in our current home feel a little warm!

(ps. Aixoise friends, let us know if you hear of any apartments in the vicinity, T4, 3 chambres, 95-100 m2 minimum!)

picture credit: http://prunelle.skynetblogs.be/archive/2004/08/18/pendaison-de-cremaillere.html

23 September 2011

Le foot

I just read an article in the New York Times magazine about a reporter who took his family to Russia and put his kids in a Russian-speaking school, not unlike what we have done here.  (Levy, Clifford. Sept. 15, 2011. "My Family’s Experiment in Extreme Schooling: What happens when you take three American kids and throw them in a classroom 5,000 miles from home where they can’t speak the language?"  http://nyti.ms/q4Mhe2 .)  Our situation is a little different in that the boys' school offers an international section which means that about 8 hours a week of instruction, in their English and history-geography classes, is in English.  So the immersion experience is not quite as intense as it was for the Levy children in Russia.  But, most of our boys' days are conducted in French, with nearly all of the teaching and school staff speaking just French.  The correspondence that comes home is also in French, and it can be a challenge (for the children and their parents alike) to understand all of that as well as the homework instructions. 

Interestingly, the school adjustment so far has not been as difficult for our boys as I thought it might be in the beginning.  Sure, Saku keeps waiting to become fluent (he seems to think it will happen automatically--how many more weeks, mom?), and the school altered the boys' French class to a more appropriate level of FLE (français langue étrangère-French as a foreign language).  Yet, Jori says he is beginning to understand some bits at school, and both boys seem happy and connected to other kids.  In fact, much of the boys' positive adjustment seems to be the result of social experiences that are less dependent on specific language skills and more likely to come from pursuits in which the language is more universal, such as from music or sports.

I've described Jori's initial musical foray earlier (Pianos libres, see archives on the right) and while I have much more to add given our most recent adventures with the music conservatory, I'll focus here on Saku for whom the universal language of sport, especially of le football or le foot (soccer), has given him a huge opening into French society.  In our very first weeks here, we spent hours in the hot sun at the local stade (stadium), where Saku kicked his ball around, trying to train independently, while hoping for someone to show up for a pick-up game.  In early August, we saw mostly young men from the nearby military academy as well as adults.  One young father whom we see regularly now at the stadium, took turns shooting at the goal with his very young son and Saku one afternoon, while another day, Saku was invited to play in a pick-up game with guys twice as old as him because he happened to be the only person on the pitch with a decent football.  These same guys we've also seen around since then, at the local bars!

This week at school during the 2 hour lunch break, Saku tried first, unsuccessfully, to join some 5th graders (that would be the 7th graders in the U.S.) in a pick-up game, but then he managed to convince a group of 3rd graders (9th graders) to let him play, and in his rendition, he dribbled circles around them, earning their respect and gaining some bonjours in the school halls.  Not too bad!  Despite very little French language ability, he has been able to use the international language of sport to make some casual connections.

Saku is also making connections more formally through the local football club that he just joined.  We gave up on the Marseilles football club as the fit wasn't quite right and the distance is just too far away to manage with just one car in the family.  Finally, in mid-August, one of my emails to ASA, Association Sportive-Aixoise (http://www.foot-asa.com/ ) was answered.  I got Saku to the next few trainings of the U-13s (boys under 12 and 13 play in the same group), and then registered him for the club, for all of 150 Euros (!) and a whole dossier (file) of documents that I described in an earlier post (see Les documents).  Because Saku does not have a license yet to play football in France (who knew that 11 year olds have licenses that must be transferred from football federation to football federation?), he is playing for the third tier team at the moment, the Honneur-13 équipe (team), for a coach with whom we must use our fullest French language skills.  (The French texts and emails we exchange I'm sure are quite comical to him.)  We imagine Saku will be asked to play on pre-Excellency or the Excellency squads eventually, once his license is transferred or approved and he has proven himself (as his U.S. club coach has sagely suggested).  These are the top levels for youth in France.  

For now, Saku is getting his foot on the ball twice a week, like at home, and he is adding some precision to the universal arm waving and hand signaling of football, by learning key French phrases with which to communicate on the pitch: montez (push up), hors-jeu (off sides), tirez, or simply shoot.  This is helping Saku's teammates open up to him and allowing him to exercise leadership skills from the very same positions he played on his beloved Emerald City Football Club team in Seattle, from center midfield and center defense.  His entraîneur (coach), teammates, and their parents have taken to shouting Carter! (Car-tehr, in a lovely French pronunciation) at pre-season games to laud him or encourage him.  The fact that he plays for ASA (pronounced ah-zah) has also gotten Saku attention.  Last week we were at Atelier Cezanne (Cezanne's studio in the last years of his life), exploring art, another subject in which specific language skills matter little, and the young man behind the gift shop counter was thrilled to meet someone playing for the club he himself played for just a few years prior.  Le foot is clearly a universal language and passion, and through it, Saku is finding a place for himself in this community, while the French language skills will surely follow.

18 September 2011

Les desserts

This past week, the second week of school, was much easier than the first one, but there are still some fiches (forms) and dossiers (files) to complete, and everything, from grocery shopping, reading signs and communicating, to helping one's children understand their homework, just takes a long time and can be quite exhausting.  We continue to depend on the good graces of our French friends, to translate both customs and instructions and to make phone calls on our behalf, and on my visiting in-laws, to help with the boys and the daily grocery shopping.

Fortunately, we have also learned some important French rituals which give comfort when the rest of daily life is a bit challenging.  This is what rituals do, in part; they help create order and normalcy, and also give one a sense of unity with the rest of society.  The ritual I am thinking of here is the eating of food.

In France, breakfast is light, usually a delicious croissant, or the ubiquitous baguette, and espresso or coffee or juice.  We have an espresso machine, and I've learned that a noisette is an espresso with a tiny bit of milk to make it the color of a noisette, or hazelnut.  Before school started, the boys would go to their favorite bakery, Lavarenne, every morning, to pick up fresh pain au chocolat (croissant with chocolate) and other bread, while practicing their French with the nice lady there.  We have to stock up now in advance, with the early school mornings here, and because of school, we do usually supplement the lighter breakfast with a boiled egg or a piece of deli meat, for some protein.  We do feel very lucky though that we can have fresh croissants or baguettes whenever we like!

The big meals are dejeuner (lunch) and then dinner.  These two are multi-course affairs, even at home, and especially at school.  Our sons are demi-pensionnaires at school (which means they take school lunch, in their case, on M, T, Th and F), and they love French school lunches!  I think the lunch rituals have helped them solidify their social relationships at school, but they also REALLY like the food.  The boys enjoy the entrées (appetizers), and the fact that there is always dessert!  Last Thursday's lunch was an enormous cordon bleu with a side of haricot verts (green beans), preceded of course by an entrée of some kind of cheese puff pastry and followed by dessert of custard with chocolate shavings.  The boys reported that on one of the first days, a new boy asked with great consternation about the fromages (the cheeses), and now it is rumored that there might be some cheeses available soon for dessert.  How very French!  The boys' school lunches are so good that I feel rather inadequate with my lunch offerings on Wednesdays when they have just a half day of school.  Who can compete with chicken in wine sauce with couscous, and creme brulée for dessert?

At home, I don't serve much by way of appetizers before lunch nor do I partake of the wine then (if I had wine every day between 12noon-2, well, you can guess that nothing much would happen in this household after that!), but because we eat dinner so late (in France, 7 pm is quite early), we do eat an entrée before dinner, maybe tapenade (olive or vegetable spread), or raw vegetables or foie gras, with a baguette.  We have adopted the ritual of enjoying wine from a box that we keep on the counter like many French families do, and we break out the nicer bottles on weekends.  I have also been sticking to my old ritual of planning the weekly meals on the weekends, because it simplifies my grocery shopping and prevents last minute meal-planning angst.  Here though, since I am still without my favorite cookbooks, our dinner plats (main dishes) are things that I can put together without too much planning and that are easy to assemble with French grocery store ingredients.  Some typical meals I've made or offered lately include: ratatouille over pasta, rotisserie chicken, omelettes, soup, and the boys' current favorite, steak haché (ground beef patties) which is part of our regular Wednesday night repertoire.  These 'steaks' I buy frozen from Picard,  frozen food store (U.S. friends, imagine a giant Trader Joe's frozen food section).  I had finally asked a French friend how she managed grocery shopping and meals with her three kids and she told me about Picard, and her extra freezer.  Busy French mothers shop at Picard with their big freezer bags or boxes (everything melts a lot faster here in the summer), and they stock up on frozen potatoes, frozen vegetables, frozen soups, ice cream, etc.  So far, I've been very impressed with the quality and prices, even if my shopping there is limited by my small freezer.

Desserts are expected, and our desserts at home range from really delicious French ice creams and sorbets from the grocery stores, to little 'pots' of chocolate, coffee or pistachio pudding, to squares of dark chocolate.  (I've attached a picture at the top of the post of one of my favorite restaurant desserts, cafe gourmand, which I enjoyed on my birthday weekend in August.  It is an espresso with a sampling of several of the above mentioned desserts--ice cream, chocolate mousse, tiramisu and a piece of chocolate.)  Some nights we walk out our building's front door and get a few boules of melon or chocolate glace (scoops of ice cream)  at the countless shops around us.    Our Sunday afternoon coffee ritual which we've happily reinstated here includes cake bought from one of the local pâtisseries (pastry shops).  This week's Sunday cake was a Tarte Tropézienne (yeast cake with custard in the middle and crunchy sugar and nuts on top), pictured above here, along with three espressos.

We have clearly been quick to adopt French food rituals in our household.  That should be no surprise; all four of us enjoy food!  Yet, the food rituals give us more than just gustatory pleasure; we find them also very rejuvenating.  The multiple courses and the fresh foods seem to sustain us and refresh our spirits, so that we can manage another day, at school, at work, or at the market, stumbling through with our awkward French.  And not only do the daily wine and desserts make it easier to deal with the daily frustrations, because they are normal, expected elements of the meals here, we enjoy them without any guilt.

09 September 2011

Les documents

The first week of public school in Seattle usually involves a myriad of paperwork to be completed by the parents of the schoolchildren.  The dreaded "First Day Packets" at the boys' elementary school required an entire evening of completing forms and writing a nice pile of bank checks. Well, guess what?  French parents undergo similar torture in the first week.  And before I begin to list out what these French first week forms entail, I must describe what I've already turned in to enroll the boys in French public middle school: school transcripts from last year, immunization records, 5 passport photos, copies of passports, and birth certificates.  The boys' school forms from the first week request proof of liability insurance for each boy, my address and profession and phone number and Allen's address and profession and phone number, all noted at least 4 times, copies of our bank routing number (in case we default on the school lunch payment presumably), another set of 5 passport-sized pictures for each boy, signatures agreeing with the noted condition of the school books, signatures releasing the boys from school, and several bank checks.  Bank checks would not be so problematic except that we don't have a checkbook yet nor is my name on our bank account.  The latter requires a copy of my passport and my marriage license and I don't know what else. In the meantime, I'm limited as to how much cash I can withdraw daily and weekly with Allen's card, and how much I can charge with the card each week (and the amount is not enough for a family of four to live on; they must have thought Allen was as single guy).  I'm down to my last 10 euros this afternoon; we've got the money in the bank, but we can't get to it!  (Unless we file more paperwork.)

Also this week, Allen received his carte de séjour (residency card), after only two 4+ hour visits to the Prefecture in Marseilles, which required waiting in just 5 different queues for a limited number of service windows (see photo), and assembling these mere documents: copies of everyone's passports, a copy of our marriage license, copies of birth certificates, 5 passport pictures (the first batch was not approved), a copy of our French electricity bill, and letters from his company and from French Immigrations itself.  The temporary residency card is only good for 3 months when it must be renewed if the long-term one has not yet arrived.  Interestingly, the card lists his American parents' names but not the name of his long-suffering wife who sat with him on those hard chairs all morning this past Tuesday and the previous Thursday!  (What was that marriage license for, then?)

Even more impressive is the application for Saku's soccer club.  For this I needed to bring in all of our original passports for scanning in the club office, proof of liability insurance for Saku, proof of residency (that electricity bill again!), a letter from his former soccer club, a completed application for a player license for the football league, more passport-sized photos, and a signed medical release from a French doctor.  A new friend who helped me decipher the boys' school forms kindly recommended a doctor for the sports' medical certifications.  The doctor was a very nice man who understood that we'd had check-ups in the U.S. just a few months ago, but of course, we needed the French stamp of approval.  He asked me about their health and spent all of two minutes checking each boy out, filled in a brief form for each, and in exchange for 24 euros each, we got the rubber stamp and a signature.

The folder we have for the carte gris (the gray card, or car registration) is nearly an inch thick.  It not only includes such documents as described above, but also our car insurance documents AND copies of the passports of the couple who sold us the car and an explanation from them as to why the sell date and the check date are a day apart.  Alas, the actual registration card is lost somewhere in the mail, having not reached us due to an incorrectly written address.  When I went to the post office with the tracking number, the postal clerk reported that the envelope had been returned to the sous-prefecture in Aix  (despite the sous-prefecture clerk's denial).  When I protested and asked what I should do, the postal clerk took my paper scrap with the routing number on it, wrote a note to the sous-prefecture, signed it, and pounded it with yet another big rubber stamp.

Every society has its procedures as to how to keep its citizens, its visitors, and its affairs in order.  Complex societies with large populations especially have to do this.  I have certainly collected my share of documents and completed forms for the boys' U.S. schools and sports clubs, for immigrations and citizenship procedures in the U.S., Canada and Finland, as well as for human resources departments at various places of employment.  And, I have to be fair, the paperwork and processes here are presented in a language that I do not speak or read well yet, so that has added to the difficulty and the frustration.  However, I will still have to award the French bureaucracy the prize for requiring the most redundant documentation.  I am beginning to accept this redundancy as I now possess, for the first time in my life, an official copy of a Finnish birth/baptismal certificate, written in both French and English, that I felt compelled to order earlier this week from Helsinki and have sent to me in France.  I am really looking forward to the opportunity to prove to anyone that challenges me, that I am who I am, as indicated by: my passport(s), my marriage license, my driver's license, my children's birth certificates, AND my own birth certificate.  (If they ask for the electrical bill for further proof, I'm out of luck...it's in Allen's name only!)

04 September 2011

Pianos Libres

One way that sociologists think about the social world and our behavior in it is to see the social interactions all as a series of performances.  We perform according to the social roles we have in various contexts and based upon the cues we receive as we interact with others in those contexts.  Many social performances are subtle ones, that we perform as family members or friends, while some of the performances may be more obvious, like the ones I put on when I teach a course to students.  Each time I walk into a classroom or log on to my online course, I become a teacher, which comes with specific behavioral expectations and rules and expertise.  I create a performance and interact with my students in ways that are appropriate to the physical or virtual classroom environment.  My students also perform within the classroom context, as they are expected to engage with and master the information and ideas I teach them.

At the moment, our family is involved in many overt social performances daily, as foreigners with limited language skills, and the French around us react in all kinds of ways; some switch to English automatically, eagerly or grudgingly, others speak French more slowly, while yet others freeze up or roll their eyes and give up.  This past weekend, Jori took on several social roles that were new to him and that seemed to transcend his current identity as foreigner.  The first such social role came about because of a lovely music festival in Aix this past week (25. Aug.-3. Sept.) called Musique dans la rue (Music in the street). Just a short distance from our apartment, at a small, ancient square called Place d'Albertas, classical, jazz, and other kinds of musicians had been performing in the open, each night, in 30 minute slots.  They rotated to other locations throughout Aix in the same evening, and we caught a few amazing musical performances, just steps from our building's front door.  On Saturday, the 3rd of September, each of the locations had grand pianos set up for the public to use for free, Pianos Libre.  We cajoled Jori into performing at the square twice in the morning, and he played a piece he was learning in Seattle before we left, El Guitarrista de Linares ~ The Spanish Guitar, by W.T. Sky Garcia, to the utter amazement of the people passing by, and then, Clocks, by Coldplay. (See photo above, and some awkwardly filmed video by his inexperienced camera crew, on youtube:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7KYKDumoOjQ . Later, as we were walking to our car to take care of some errands, we came across another piano at La Rotonde (near the famous old fountain), and Jori repeated with Clocks again (see below, and on youtube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CC0ppIA4FCA ) .  He was so nervous each time, as he had never played in front of so many strangers before, but with a little encouragement (well, bribery), he did it.  Tourists and locals alike were photographing him, and one man said, 'Wow, he's just a junior high kid (un collégian)!'.  What an opportunity, to perform, in public, outdoors, both in an ancient square and in a main thoroughfare, with amazing acoustics, on a grand piano!  (Especially since he has not been able to get his hands on a keyboard for weeks.)  It was very exciting, and it gave Jori the opportunity to try on the social role of musician, or street musician.  It's something he's been thinking about since we moved here, as a way to earn some pocket money (!). Trying out the street musician role, he discovered that you need a broad repertoire and good composure.

Later in the day, Jori became a sought-after athletic prospect.  We attended a sports/activities fair just south of the center of town, to gather information about soccer, football, and swimming, natation, opportunities for the boys.  (I'll write later about our efforts to find a suitable football club for Saku.)  As we were making inquiries for Jori about the swim test for the swim team, a rugby coach approached us and asked if Jori might be interested in playing rugby for his U12-U13 team.  The coach was very intrigued by Jori's size.  We duly took the information about practices, and then attended the swimming tryout.  There, the water polo coach approached us for the same reason, to see if Jori might be interested in playing for him!  Jori, the athletic recruit, in his second new social role, will check out the rugby and swimming opportunities this week, to see which activity he will pursue. 

Starting tomorrow, Jori will perform in his third new social role, along with his brother, as they become middle school students.  This social role is fraught with a bit of anxiety in the beginning, of course, as it would be for any new middle school student.  Middle school comes with new behavioral expectations (that is, performances) and even a new vocabulary, regardless of where the school is located.  In that sense, the experiences that Jori and Saku will have this week as new sixth graders at Collège Mignet are not going to be so different from those that their friends will have back home, as they too begin middle schools, in Seattle.  It will be interesting to compare notes.

03 September 2011

La rentrée

The excitement is building, in our apartment as well as around Aix, as la rentrée is nearly upon us. That's 'back to school' in American parlance. The school supply aisles at Carrefour and Monoprix are picked through by now (Carrefour is like Fred Meyer, and Monoprix is rather like a smaller Macy's, only with a grocery store). Our French neighbor in the States warned us about visiting Carrefour this weekend; we had to do some shopping last night anyway, and we were amused by the sign that said the store would be open on Sunday as an exception (but we were not amused by the long lines...).

Earlier this week, Saku went through his school supplies and practiced writing his address with a fountain pen, and Jori figured out how to use his calculator once he realized that annuler means to cancel. I mentioned the school supply list in my first post from Aix, worrying about it a bit. I then realized after translating it, I could make a go of it. We realized we needed help when we got to the paper and notebooks, so I enlisted the help of my local friend's daughter who's a few years older, to help us get the correct paper and other essentials we didn't know about, like fountain pens and a planner. The photo shows the supplies purchased for one boy. The full cost was easily several hundred dollars (for two students). We still have the school lunch to pay for, and I'm not sure what else.  While I can't compare the cost adequately to U.S. public middle school/junior high school, I feel like we have just put in a fair amount of money to attend public school. Aside from our extra costs associated with coming here in May for a week to take the entrance exams, I wonder how French families manage?

I poked around a bit on the national education sites, since the boys' school, Collège Mignet, is a French public school. (In fact, it was previously a high school, Lycèe Mignet, and Cezanne was its most famous student!). Anyway, French families can apply for financial assistance for public school, and it looks like it is much more broadly available to families and more broadly used. In a way, I think it's like a tax credit, only in the form of cash vouchers. I'm going to investigate this further as I am curious.*

What will la rentree look like for us? We know that Monday will be the first day of school for the 6th graders, all of whom will be new to the school. The kids attend from 9-5, and then Tuesday and Wednesday are introductory days for the upper grades (these are 5th, 4th and 3rd grades; in France, the classes are labeled in descending order so that 1st grade is our 12th grade). So, our boys attend one day, get their schedules and their books, find their way around the school, and try out the school lunch (the menus are impressive from last spring), and then they have two days off. School begins in earnest on Thursday, 8 September, for everyone. We'll surely have more to share after that.

Happy Labor Day, U.S. friends!  (Some of you have started school already.)

*A year later, Aug. 2012: There is indeed an allowance for families with incomes below a certain level: http://www.connexionfrance.com/Allocation-rentree-scolaire-Hollande-payment-14007-view-article.html

26 August 2011

Une femme d'un certain âge

One really lovely custom here that I've come to appreciate is the daily greeting, at a shop, at a cafe, at the market. I hear Bonjour Madame countless times a day, and then Merci, Madame, Au revoir. (And I'm expected to reciprocate.) Even in the hallway of our building, we are greeted multiple times daily by the burly contractors working on the facade of our ancient building. Our favorite guy even wished me a Bon appetit, Madame when we returned home from errands at noon yesterday in time for dejeuner (lunch).

I've been thinking about what it is that I like about the greeting. First, I like that one's presence is intentionally acknowledged. I'll never forget one Saturday in Helsinki, when I was in my 20's living abroad for the year, where I went through an entire day in the center of the city, doing errands, and not one single person said hello or made eye contact with me until the end of the day when a woman yelled at me for getting in her way at the grocery store. I remember feeling subhuman and invisible, and lonely. (I'm not suggesting that Helsinki is an unfriendly place then or now, but on that day in 1989, this is what I experienced.) From that time on, I have always tried to keep in mind how important is to acknowledge people, particularly those who serve us or who are most likely to be overlooked. By acknowledging their presence, even simply, we acknowledge their humanity. Isn't that what makes civilization?

The other reason I like the daily greetings must be related to my age and circumstances. Today, more than any other day perhaps, as I am becoming une femme d'un certain age (a woman of a certain age), I ACTUALLY like being called Madame! I'm not sure that I felt this way even last summer when we vacationed here, but now that I have completed my 44th year, and because I actually am trying to make a life for our family here, interacting with shopkeepers, sales people, market vendors, and post office clerks daily, being called Madame makes me feel confident, appreciated, and even a little empowered, like I am someone who must be acknowledged and who has business here. The greeting also helps counteract the language barrier as well as the frumpiness I am feeling due to my limited wardrobe and the persistent sweaty sheen on my face from the unrelenting heat. (We are surrounded by cute, young college students as we live among several universities, but even the Aixoise women of my age who do live in town all look remarkably cool and classy; they all seem to wear fabulous clothes, jewelry, and shoes, like those in the shop window shown above.) Alas, my marginally fabulous shoes are all still in transit, in the shipping container, so I wear the 3 pairs of sensible sandals I managed to squeeze into two suitcases, day in and day out. The upside is that my feet don't hurt at all.)

In the U.S. we are also big on greetings, it's true, but we don't have a very good equivalent for the particularly personal part of the greeting that is so important in France. It's not just hello, but hello TO YOU. Ma'am makes me feel really old, Miss and Mrs. don't work that well either, and I really don't like to be called 'You guys'. But, I do like the social interaction and respect that come with the American 'hello' and that is probably why Bonjour Madame works for me here.

Au revoir!

ps. You'll notice that I've tried a new design template on this blog, to match my personal transition to a new age, I suppose. I do think the text is a little hard to read on the dark background, and I will fiddle more with the template.