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