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.

21 August 2011

Les vacances

The ability to have leisure time and how one uses it are both sociological indicators of social status. In France, nearly all workers are entitled to 5 weeks of paid vacation a year so the ability to have leisure time is not a good marker of social status here, but the distinguishing factor may be HOW one vacations. The current issue of the Paris Match (18-24 August 2011) shows paparazzi photos of 'Les Politiques en vacance' (French politicians and government officials on their traditional August holidays). Sunbathing and boating at Corsica and St. Tropez, both here in the South, seem to be the most popular vacation pursuits of these rich and famous.

Seaside or village holidays are popular for the French of all social classes though, and we joined thousands of middle class French on the traffic-laden autoroutes heading north to our own seaside holiday, on the Friday of the August long weekend. (Monday, August 15 is a holiday on par with U.S. Labor Day.) We made a pit stop in Paris to meet up for an afternoon with our Seattle soccer friends, the K-D family, and while Paris may have been empty of its residents as it famously is in August, it was full of tourists, with whom we stood elbow to elbow at the Trocadero overlooking the Eiffel Tower at dusk.

Our ultimate destination was Grandcamp-Maisy, a small fishing village in Normandie, along the D-Day beaches of World War II. I had booked a resident-hotel unit, and both the hotel and the campground adjacent to it were packed. French, Italian, British, Dutch families, many with grandparents, were laden with crates of food, beach towels, and supplies to wash dishes and clothes. Many of the French campers with semi-permanent sites had fishing nets, buckets, and bicycles. The woman at reception said to us as we checked in, ‘Just 3 nights then?’ Clearly, we were supposed to stay for a good week, with sufficient supplies. We caught on quickly though and extended our stay by 2 nights and I made a mental list of supplies for next time. Maybe then we’ll try the chambres d’hotes or gites, where one can rent rooms on farms or entire houses.

Most of the vacationers around us were focused on getting their daily catch of mussels and other shellfish and on wearing their nautical shirts around town, while the focus of our holiday was history. We wanted to see the area where Allen’s grandfather had arrived during the Normandy campaign, with the 8th Division, on July 1, 1944, when the fighting was still very active and deadly. While the horrors he experienced are unimaginable, we saw the site of the artificial harbor that he undoubtedly crossed as well as the thick hedgerows through which the war was fought here. We visited three different museums about WWII and the Normandy Campaign, in Caen, Bayeux and Grandcamp-Maisy, the American and German military cemeteries, and the German battery and memorial at Pointe-du-Hoc, and had lunch one day at Cherbourg-Octeville, a port city largely devastated by the war.

Such a heavy pursuit of WW II history was balanced with swimming, at the pool or in the English Channel (Omaha Beach despite its history as a gruesome battlefield is an extraordinarily beautiful beach called Vierville-sur-mer), with sightseeing, in the picturesque town of Bayeux where we saw the famous 1000 year old tapestry that depicts how William, Duke of Normandy became the King of England (remember the Battle of Hastings in 1066?), and with a great deal of eating. We sampled the local ciders and Calvados (apple brandy) and the delightful owner of La belle mariniére introduced us to the local oysters, shrimps and mussels.

Some French are still on holiday, but we ended our first French holiday this past Friday, with an 11-hour cross country drive through the Loire Valley and the center of France all the way to our new home in Aix. It’s quite hot here now, 31 degrees (low 90s), but we’re rested and well-fed and in good shape to slowly prepare for the start of school on Sept. 5. Let's hope that the French government heads are equally rejuvenated from their vacances and are ready to get back to running the country.

08 August 2011

Vive la différence

In contrast to my previous post, we have now noted some things and practices in France in our first week that ARE different from our experience:

**Our French housekeys turn in the door to the left to lock, right to unlock (forget righty-tighty, lefty-loosey), and you should see the old keys to our apartment and to the various cupboards.

**The garbage gets picked up EVERY evening, and we just leave it in a bag outside the front door after 7 pm. (Allen thinks the density of where we live makes daily garbage pickup necessary.) Recycling is possible, but I can't seem to locate the closest bins and our water bottle collection is growing.

**Parking and driving are relatively flexible endeavors. Check out the photo below of the parking job on the median into the local parking garage. That's one way to save some Euros!

**Here in the south of France, men and boys exchange cheek kisses as a standard greeting, la bise. (We noticed this in May when Saku was playing with two different soccer teams and as soon as the coaches showed up, all the boys lined up to greet their coaches, deux bise, one on each cheek.) Handshakes are rare.

**Tops at the beach are optional, even at the family beach at St. Croix, west of Marseilles. The boys didn't notice, but Allen sure did.

**Most stores are closed on Sunday. Allen says for some occupations, it's ILLEGAL to work on Sunday.

To be fair, I have to invoke Horace Miner now, an anthropologist whose famous Body Ritual among the Nacirema piece (1956) is required reading in my Introduction to Sociology course, see http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Body_Ritual_among_the_Nacirema. In this piece, Miner describes the seemingly barbaric rituals of the Nacireman tribe, such as the strange cleaning and treating of the teeth, the hair-baking rituals and the brutal medical practices. Most of my students are quite disturbed as they read along in class. They become quite sheepish though when I reveal that they themselves are in fact the Nacirema (what's Nacirema spelled backwards?). This is Miner's trick, to show us that all cultural practices and beliefs are relative, that what we think is normal may not be so in another setting or to another set of eyes, and what is strange to one, may be perfectly normal to someone else. This realization is often an eye-opening one.

Here's what the French might see from their perspective:

**The Americans use boring keys that can be reproduced in a matter of seconds, and they turn to the right to lock. French keys are probably older than most of the United States is.
**In the U.S., the household garbage festers in the trashcan for an ENTIRE week before it is picked up.
**Americans have rigid rules about driving and parking, and pay too much to park their cars.
**Americans seem really uncomfortable with body contact, and greet each other with handshakes.
**Americans are uncomfortable with nudity.
**Americans never rest; they even work and shop on Sundays.

The point is that it's easy to see the 'other' as different or strange, and this often leads to judgments of quality, that our way is good and the other, different way is bad. Miner's intent in part was to warn us of such ethnocentric tendencies, by showing us how strange our rituals can seem to others. As my family observes, explores, and experiences France, we will do well to keep Miner's message in mind.

04 August 2011

C'est normal!

We've arrived at our new home, in Aix-en-Provence, and despite having all kinds of thoughts of how different, difficult, and exasperating life in France will be as I prepared for our departure, (given some of the bureaucratic hassles others have had and the much-storied readiness of the French to declare something impossible), these first few days have been a revelation in how common and normal life is here. On Wednesday morning, 8/3, I went to the vegetable market in the early morning before the crowds and found myself panicking and not understanding the kind vegetable vendor when she asked me some questions as I purchased a gorgeous head of lettuce and some green onions. I froze and smiled feebly, trying to ask her to try again, yet as I walked off, I realized I was able to tell the boys exactly what she asked me. What else would a market vendor ask, except, 'will that be all?', (c'est tout?), and are you here for vacation (est-ce que vous êtes ici pour les vacances? or something like that). I was clearly overthinking this. Then later in the day, we took our Peugeot 307 wagon (yes, we now own a station wagon!) to Carrefour, the Fred Meyer of France, and Allen suggested we acquire a carte de fidélité. I worried until I realized that the application I was filling out was exactly like the Fred Meyer rewards card application, except in French. In fact, I even asked to sign up for another one today, at Monoprix, the department store around the corner where I will likely do much of my daily shopping.

I've also been worrying about the detailed French school supply lists and finding someone to help us buy the right stuff for school. The supply list is now online, and it is daunting, but I also realized at Carrefour that there were all kinds of French adults struggling over their own children's school supply lists in the aisles set up for the rentrée (the first of day of school). Okay, we can muddle through. And, then there are the appliances in our elegant apartment in the old town section of the city: we've finally managed to get the modern glass stovetop to work, the espresso machine uses capsules that I'm unfamiliar with and keeps dispensing espresso even as the brew turns weak, but by golly, I seem to have figured out the dishwasher, even if I can't tell when the cycle is truly over.

In other words, daily life is really no different than that which we left, in some essential ways. In much of the post-industrialized world, we can expect the salespeople to ask the same things, the appliances to function similarly, and the school supply lists to overwhelm parents' minds and wallets. This realization has been most comforting these first few days. Of course, I am fully aware that the the upcoming visits to the prefectures to settle French residency permits and the French car registration, and the imminent cell phone application and health insurance paperwork may confound us. Hopefully, we will be able to recognize the ways in which these too are common processes.