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.