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.