18 December 2012

Vrai ou faux?

As any English-speaking foreigner here knows, some of the most embarrassing language issues center on faux amis (false friends), those expressions in one language that seem like similar ones in another, but in fact, mean something entirely different.  They are like tricks, familiar enough to trip up the reader, and the more I try to learn French, the more it seems I stumble upon them.  For example, one of my friends (a real and true human one) was telling me a few weeks ago that she was going to Marseille to buying some baskets for her daughter for Christmas because she couldn't find the right ones in the right size in Aix.  I wondered just what kind of sweet little baskets she was looking for.  Well, it wasn't the wicker kind at all, but the kind pictured here, because baskets are not baskets in French, but high top sneakers.  (A basket is a panier or corbeille in French.)  Similarly, when we first arrived in Aix, I was asked by someone if my twins were vrai ou faux (true or false).  I managed to keep my indignation to myself when I realized that in fact, those two boys whom I carried for nearly 9 months and birthed as twins are not vrai jumeaux (true, or identical twins) in French, but faux (fraternal, or false) ones, however false it feels to call them that.  Much of French usage is context-based, and there are many of these faux 'faux amis' where a single word can actually mean two different things, depending on the context.  It's like this flocked-to-the-extreme red Christmas tree which I discovered this week on the street in Aix; it looks faux, but in fact is real!

Other language deceptions exist in the realm of pronunciation where there are an awful lot of superfluous letters in French which are not supposed to be pronounced, sometimes.  Those are false friends too in my view.  Young French kids learn French pronunciations and silent letters through memorization, aided by schoolbooks that cross out the silent letters.  I think that would be very helpful for adult learners.  For example, faux amis (silent 's', but do pronounce the 'x' as it carries over to the vowel in the next word: foe za mee) but vrai ou faux  (don't pronounce the x here, vray oo foe), and in those doubly fake friends, faux faux amis (the first x is silent, the second one is not, foe foe za mee).  See what I mean?

In fact, every language plays games with new language learners.  My first language, Finnish, offers nice pronunciation rules, in that every letter in a word is pronounced, so that sounding out words is relatively easy.  But learning what those words mean, and how to use them becomes very difficult when one realizes that long compound words are very common, and that there are over a dozen cases that must be learned; a word like vesi (water) becomes a very different word depending on whether you want to drink it, go in to it, moisten something with it, or are admiring it.  Dangerous deceptions lurk here too; years ago, when I was learning basic Estonian which is closely related to Finnish, I discovered plenty of faux amis, where a word in Finnish like halpa (inexpensive), used perhaps by Finnish tourists when marveling over cheap prices in Estonia, sounds very bad to Estonians because to them halb means bad, or poor quality.  Of course, English is difficult too, with the many homonyms (their, there, they're) and silent letters and difficult sounds: ch, sh, th.

The only consolation is that eventually after enough encounters with different kinds of faux amis, one learns from one's mistakes.  It's rare to meet a faux ami a second time.  Instead, over time, one is able to turn these false friendships into true ones where the once-tricky words or pronunciations actually become useful communication tools, for exchanging niceties, or asking questions, or even sharing confidences, say with neighbors, teachers, or friends.  At those times, the language used may still not come out correctly (it rarely does for me!), but at least there is enough there to create a true and real social connection.

03 December 2012

Le bonheur

While I am a somewhat lapsed knitter (but one who now lives a simpler, French life with more time for little pleasures like needlecrafts), I was initially puzzled by the dearth of handicraft shops in Aix.  Within our first month here, a friend introduced me to a lovely but pricey shop called Au bonheur de dames (ladies' true happiness), where I have spent plenty of  Euros on yarn for the same flouncy scarves I've seen on many women here (see me wearing one creation on Le temps, Nov. 30, 2011) and on some beautiful but expensive needlework kits (my photo shows a little needle case that I completed earlier this year).  Yet, when I went looking for more shopping options, I was surprised by how few there were and how limited.

It didn't take long for me to realize why Aix has so few textile crafts shops.  On EACH occasion that I have brought out my knitting or other needlework in public or among French friends, I have been teased for being an old woman knitting on the football or rugby sideline or in the living room armchair.  Le tricot, la broderie, la couture, ils ne sont pas à la mode!  (Knitting, embroidery, sewing, they are not 'in'!)   This is in direct contrast to my experience in the United States where knitting and other crafts continue to be very popular.  Yet, the young sisters of the French soccer players have been absolutely mesmerized by my projects, asking me questions about the embroidery tension rings and needles, admiring the changing colors on the variegated yarn on my fingerless glove project shown here, and checking on my crafting progress throughout the games.  Surely these pleasures are not reserved for just les vieilles dames (the old ladies)?

I've come to think that young girls in this society, and particularly in the south have limited leisure time opportunities, with Barbies, then shopping and cosmetics, and then experimenting with cigarettes among them.  Clearly, textile handcrafts are largely out, yet other options like physical activities continue to be fairly segregated by gender.  Girls swim, do gymnastics or dance, play tennis, or might ride horses if they have the money.  There are a few exceptions, and perhaps my eagle-eyed readers discovered two of them in my last post (the one with the masculine title Allez les gars, Nov. 26, 2012): in the accompanying photo of my son's football team, there are two girls who play soccer alongside the boys.  They have to, if they want to play soccer here.  While France has a national women's team, the infrastructure for a girls' youth league is not as well-developed as it is in the United States where young girls have many opportunities to play, and so they do.  I have yet to see an all-girls soccer team or league here in the football-crazy south, and it's probably right to say that France does not yet have a functioning equivalent of Title IX (the U.S. law that ensures equal funding for women's athletic and other programs in federally supported institutions).  That means that French girls have to be incredibly determined, tough, and focused, if they want to play le foot, just like the two girls at my son's club as well as the courageous girl I saw yesterday, at a match in Marseille.  She waited stoically with her parents for warm-ups to begin, standing just beyond her all-boy team that was horsing around (and excluding her).  I watched her maintain her poker-face and her rigid posture as she stepped onto the field at the start of both halves.  Clearly, le foot means a lot to her, yet she cannot comfortably express the joy and pleasure she has for the game while playing among and against adolescent boys.  (Blog update: I have discovered a New York Times essay about this same topic, Sciolino, Sept. 16, 2002. "Paris Journal; For French Girls, Soccer is a tough goal", suggesting that not much has changed in a decade.)

How do we find notre bonheur (that which makes us happy)?  As I continue to observe the gender inequality around me and look for evolutions towards a literally and figuratively more equalized playing field for French girls, (and wait for knitting to become hip among the younger French, male and female alike), I am hugely disappointed by France's former First Lady, Carla Bruni-Sarkozy's comments in a recent interview with the Parisian Vogue.  She says that women of her generation ....“don’t need to be a feminist....There were pioneers who opened the breach....I’m not at all an active feminist. On the contrary I’m bourgeois, I love family life, I love doing the same thing every day.” (as transcribed in "Carla supports gay marriage." La Connexion, Nov. 26, 2012) Apparently, this privileged and 'bourgeois' mother (whose voice could make a difference) seems to believe that her young daughter and other French girls will have no problem at all in finding equal and full access to life's pleasures and opportunities.

26 November 2012

Allez les gars!

Just like in the American town in which I grew up and in the U.S. city where I've lived most of my adult life, sports rivalries are big here in France, at all levels.  For us, they are especially pronounced since our children play in local sports clubs and we spend each weekend listening to fans of opposing teams rallying their team's members against the foes.  The French may be a little more restrained than the American fans, but we hear plenty of yelling and sideline coaching:  Allez les gars! (Let's go guys!)  Bien joué! (Good play, or well-played!)  Tirez (Shoot!)  As for rivalries, our rugby-playing son's team has a cross-town rival club, and much was made of a former teammate 'defection' this fall.  A more intense rivalry exists between Aix's best club de foot (soccer club) and the one in the adjacent town (to which my other son has in fact defected this year, see the team photo below that appeared in Friday's La Provence, Nov. 23, 2012).

Intense local rivalries become regional ones and even national ones, such as those between teams and fans of the French professional teams, or between the French national team and say the Italians.  Here in Provence, regardless of one's local club affiliations, it's the professional football team OM, Olympique Marseille, that we are supposed to root for (this is apparently non-negotiable), and this Wednesday's French league match is a much-awaited one one of its big rivals, OL, Olympique Lyonnais.  As we see elsewhere, French fans can get a little crazy in expressing their loyalties and the rivalries.  A coach at our son's soccer club is such a rabid OM fan that he sports a big OM tattoo, a big old OM earring in one ear, and turquoise OM fanwear; he is also said to break out in song whenever the archrival team Paris SG loses its matches.  I'd wager though that when it comes to national team competitions, his local and regional rivalries are eclipsed by his support for the French national team, with its FFF rooster logo.

The us vs. them mentality is quite social.  On the one hand, it allows one to identify closely with others who share similar interests and situations. Rivalries and battles create that essential Durkheimian sense of belonging and group identity.  Interestingly, it doesn't even take a victory, to build that feeling of connection with others in the same boat.  Yesterday, our son's U-13 team tied the region's most prestigious and purportedly best team, (that would be the youth team from the OM club, mentioned above!).  Amazingly, that tie was the talk at our sons' school today, and it was the catalyst for some emotional Facebook posts on the club's page last night proclaiming a few grown men's pride in their hometown club.  Apparently, being the underdog can be just as unifying as being the ultimate victor.

On the other hand, being the underdog can pose real disadvantages too, because the relatively superficial sports rivalries usually reflect deeper inequalities and social struggles for power, privilege and prestige, between individuals, groups, towns, regions, etc.  These all have different social, economic and political endowments that others might seek or that they want to augment themselves, and so we jockey for power.  Sometimes we try to share, or compromise, but usually, the stronger, more endowed team wins, the other one loses, and if there is a tie, well, eventually that tie has to be broken, most of the time.  Here in France, we've just witnessed the messy political battle between the top candidates for the leadership of France's main opposition party (the former president Sarkozy's party) both of whom felt they had won the recent party election and neither would gracefully concede (see "Rivals class over UMP leadership ahead of talks" Nov. 25, 2012, France24).  I'm not sure who's the underdog in that rivalry, but ultimately that deadlock has to end if that party is going to remain viable.  Locally, we have the political wrangling for and against a national proposal to unify Aix more closely with Marseille in administrative affairs, to create a bigger metropolitan zone.  The mayor in Aix clearly opposes the plan, seeing it as a threat to Aix's prestige and its autonomy (see "Maryse Joissains ne veut pas de métropole, Sept. 7, 2012 France3).  She apparently authorized the banner that I saw being unfurled on the balcony at the hotel de ville (city hall) last Friday.  Others see the métropole plan as the only real way to improve the intolerable traffic in the region, the inefficiency of having so many separate administrative units in so many small towns, and the difficult security, economic and immigrant situations in Marseille.  (See a pro-metropole view here, in French.  I touched on Marseille's difficulties in an earlier post this year, see Du shit. )  In this case, the bigger, more complex, but overburdened Marseille is probably the underdog, despite the glory of its football club.  In sports, it often doesn't REALLY matter how the matches end (or so we tell the kids: "it's just a game").  Here though we can see that the outcomes of some rivalries can have much more serious consequences; sometimes it really does matter who wins and who loses.

16 November 2012

Les plats traditionnels

We are licking our chops in anticipation of a traditional Thanksgiving meal here that we will prepare à la maison (at home).  While I've got the American fixings for pumpkin pie, we'll work with French ingredients for the rest, as I'll be ordering la dinde (the turkey) next week, the bottle of bubbly aperitif came back with us from the Loire Valley, the pommes de terre (potatoes) originate in French soil, and the stuffing will be made with the ubiquitous French baguettes, stale ends of which are always found on our kitchen counter.  Most importantly though, this food-based ritual, regardless of its origins and its ingredients or even where it's actually taking place, will be enjoyed like other culinary rituals: it will be communally-enjoyed, among friends or family, and it will include renditions of les plats traditionnels (traditional dishes).  We've participated in several such rituals this autumn already, as we await our own celebration.

~In October, we enjoyed aperitifs with two Canadian families in honor of Canadian Thanksgiving.  It turns out the traditional Canadian meal isn't so different from the U.S. version, even though our friends' version is vegetarian and the dates for the thanksgiving meals are about a month apart.  What was perhaps unusual was that, by French standards, the gathering took place early, at la bonne heure, and by North American expectations , we should not have been able to have our drinks outside  (but it was a fall Provençal afternoon which means it was sunny and mild).

~A week or so later, we joined Lyonnaise friends in a French country house kitchen to enjoy a meal typical of Martinique, a French island in the Caribbean.  That meal was prepared by the visiting father of friends, who had brought several 3 liter boxes of dangerously tasty Island rhum agricole (two drinks of rum mixed with syrup or jam plus lime was clearly enough for me, judging from my headache the next morning).  The meal itself was coq (rooster), with all of its 'special' parts (yep, the 'coq' part too), slow-cooked in a jerk-type sauce, accompanied by a dish of beans, all served over rice.  Tasty! 

~The next night, I crossed off 'taste wild boar' from my bucket list.  Along with 30 other people at beautiful candelit tables, we enjoyed a very French autumn meal that started late and ended late (I missed dessert by going to bed around midnight).  We ate dark, rich sanglier (wild boar) prepared in a daube (a wine-based stew) and accompanied by pommes dauphinoise (scalloped potatoes) and sauteed mushrooms, chanterelles and pieds de mouton (a mushroom called mutton's foot).  Alas, the mushrooms were not of our own picking.  To my vast mushroom picking experience, I can now add digging for them through the snow, which is how our mushroom picking expedition ended up earlier that same day.  Fortunately, a champignonnière shop at a lower elevation village with a good supply of mushrooms saved the meal, or at least added to it, as did all the good wine, including my new 'fave', another delicious Chateauneuf du pape wine, Domaine Chante Perdrix.

~This week we tasted Algerian specialties, including samosa-type appetizers filled with seasoned ground beef, a chopped red pepper sauce on mini-toasts, followed by the tomato-based and wheat grain-thickened chorba, the soup that traditionally marks the end of Ramadan fasts. Our French-Algerian friends then served us couscous with stewed vegetables and beef and chicken, all cooked in a cocotte minute (a pressure cooker, a very popular item in French kitchens).  Because of Islamic and family traditions, we did not drink wine, but our pineapple upside down cake dessert and the wonderful hospitality were accompanied by the deliciously sweet mint tea.

 ~And finally, while it wasn't a meal, last weekend, one son and I picked olives, an autumn food-based tradition here in the South of France which was every bit as communal and international as our meals this past month, given the friendly conversations in multiple languages taking place among pickers.  We didn't taste the fresh olives (they aren't considered edible until cured or pressed), but the result of our tree climbing and shaking efforts will result in bottles of olive oil, a staple ingredient in many French dishes.

08 November 2012

Maisons et chateaux

Chateau Chenonceau on the Cher river

Our past weekend in la vallée de la Loire (Loire Valley) was one in which we caught a glimpse of the former and current lifestyles of the rich and famous.  At Chateau Chenonceau, (pictured here) we walked through the opulent bedrooms and the large kitchen and servants' dining room (think Downton Abbey), and we saw how Catherine de Medici competed with her husband's 'favorite' mistress Diane de Poitiers for the most elegant bedroom and prettiest garden and eventually, the ownership of the castle.  At Chateau du Clos Lucé, we walked through the Leonardo da Vinci's retirement lodgings and the gorgeous gardens, and at Chateaux Cheverny, we were treated to photos of the current Marquis and his young family who reside on the upper floor and who open their home year-round to the tourists who want to see how the elite live.  (This marquis apparently hunts, as the castle grounds include kennels for a pack of hounds.)

Seeing the insides of French maisons et chateaux (homes and castles) can be so revealing about a people and their society, but most of the time, the French are extremely guarded about their private homes, treating them almost like real fortresses that are NOT open to public viewing.  Many single dwelling homes in France and the yards around them are surrounded by tall iron fences or stone walls, with locked gates controlling access to driveways.  We have not noticed many neighborhoods where casual passers-by can see inhabitants watching television in their living rooms, or preparing food in their kitchens, or sprucing up their gardens.  With the locked gated entries, door-to-door soliciting is virtually impossible as is trick-or-treating (which is not a tradition here anyway), and going on a walk in Aix is often a bit frustrating for me.  I'm always a little bit of a voyeur, peeking through holes in the fences or looking to see what I can see as gates open and close.  The French also use their wooden (or electric) window shutters regularly, at night or in the heat or extreme cold, and often even during the day, which can have the effect of closing up homes and buildings to the outside world.  On our drives to castles and towns across the eastern part of the Loire Valley last weekend, the effect was rather depressing; it seemed as if all of the houses were painted the same non-descript white-ish color and on many of them, the dingy windows shutters were tightly closed.  (The shutters and homes in some towns, in the south especially, do have a little more color.)  But where were all the people in central France, in the lieu-dits (tiny localities) and villages, and what were they doing? 

Because we rented a holiday house this past weekend, a gîte as these are called, (pronounced 'jeet'), we were able to see a little bit of life from the inside of high stone walls and iron gates.  Our owners lived in the adjacent white manoir (manorhouse) which had unusually bright blue shutters, and we saw when they were out and about, leaving for the Saturday market or wherever, and we caught a glimpse of one of them working at their computerThese are the kinds of things we normally see in our community in the U.S.  If I were to walk to the store from my Seattle house, I would pass by the fronts of all of my neighbors' houses, and it would be unusual not to exchange a quick wave with a resident in her kitchen or a child in the front yard.  Not only that, in this same house I can talk on the telephone at the window in my living room and gesticulate to my neighbor across the street who can see me from her living room window as she answers my call on her phone.  And, the houses in our Seattle neighborhood are green, blue, red, taupe, yellow.  Some do have have shutters beside the windows but these are purely decorative, and most front yards are not fenced in, nor are driveways closed off.  Our cars are parked on the public street, across from our neighbors' cars and we often see each other as we come and go.   

Perhaps the differences between how the French live and how we live is related to the different valuations of privacy and security.  (Earlier I wrote about French privacy in regard to first names, see Noms et prenoms, Sept. 2012.)  The English saying about a man's house being his castle does speak to the idea that privacy and security are important values, and these seem to be valued here on the other side of the Channel as well.  Just recently, I ran into a French employee at a local frame shop whom I recognized as my eye-level neighbor.  (She and her family live in the building across a street and a courtyard from us, on the same floor as we do, and I recognized her face from having seen her at her window occasionally in the spring and summer.)  The woman and her co-worker were startled when I asked her if she lived on a certain street and then suggested we might be neighbors, that perhaps we had seen each other across the street?  Perhaps I was being too forward, invading her privacy.  On the other hand, the French do seem to focus a great deal on property crime and perhaps she felt a bit vulnerable.  The French go to great lengths to protect their things, with the barricades around private family homes, the shutters, the iron bars, and for us apartment dwellers, the ubiquitous buzzers at our building entrances.  Perhaps she was feeling protective of both her privacy and personal security.  In any case, I was relieved to discover a few weeks later that this French neighbor and I actually aren't all that different.  On a very stormy day in which torrents of rain were creating rivers out of the old town streets of Aix, both she and our family were drawn to our windows at exactly the same moment, to watch the amazing weather.  Astonishingly, she waved to us, so we waved back, and then, I pointed to the street and gestured with my hands to show how deep the water was.  She smiled and nodded, et voilà! We had ourselves a normal, friendly neighborly interaction.

What we see most days looking out our windows

30 October 2012

Les âmes des vivants et des morts

As I prepare for a new online sociology of religion course, I have been refining how I explain the different approaches to understanding religion and religiosity.  Because sociology is an empirical science, we can only interpret and make predictions about things which we can observe.  Yet, religion is based on faith, faith in unobservable thus untestable forces, such as sacred beings and supernatural forces, after-lives and human souls.  In sociology, we can't assess the actual existence of these 'religious truths', and this often upsets or confuses my students initially, particularly those who hold religious beliefs.  My job over the course of a quarter though is to show that while sociology can't speak to the veracity of religious beliefs, it does recognize that religion is a very real social force, one which gives deep meaning and purpose to many people.  Through sociology, we can see how religion unifies people, divides them, how it interacts with other social institutions like political and economic systems, and how it remains important, even in the face of scientific or other secular beliefs.

The conflicts and misunderstandings underlying different conceptions of life and our world are all around us.  I have just finished reading the remarkable story of the living HeLa cancer cells that were unknowingly contributed by a poor black woman back in the 1950's (see The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot).  I am drawn to the vastly different ways the people in this story relate to the human body, particularly to the tissue taken from one particular body.  We learn how the doctors saw the living body as something to fix, something from which they could relatively harmlessly excise tissue in order to study it (and from which they did a second time after the body was no longer living).  The laboratory scientists and technologists tried to mimic the body by creating different kinds of culture media in which to try to grow and feed the cells in the excised tissue.  In the beginning, they also sometimes transported the living cells in tubes carried in pockets near their own bodies.  The tissue itself seemed distant from the body from which it came, until one lab worker noticed the painted toenails on the body during the autopsy and poignantly recognized that the collected tissues had come from a real person.  Eventually, the propagating cells from the tissue became a wildly successful commercial product, one which unfortunately did not benefit the descendants of Ms. Lacks.  To her family, the living tissue was confusing, in part because of their deep religious beliefs; was Henrietta alive, could she be brought back to life, could she be cloned, where was her soul or her spirit if part of her body was still alive?  There was a great deal of disconnect between what the Lacks' family understood and believed, and what the researchers and their staffs did.  In part, such different understandings reflect how deeply rooted questions of faith can be, whether the faith is in science or religion or even in the market, and how difficult it can be to find common ground.

In France, conflicts between religious and other views bubble up here and there.  A secular state such as this one officially and publicly has no place for religion, and any overtly religious expression is not allowed in public settings.  As of 2011, this applies to the wearing of the burka by Muslim women.   To French women who do wear the burka, the prohibition is untenable because it forces them to go against their deepest beliefs, and so we continue to see misunderstandings between secular and religious interpretations (see French police injured in row over burka, by Henry Samuel, The Telegraph, July 26, 2012).  On the other hand, the French have been able to marry other religious elements into their secular society to some degree without too much conflict.  I have pointed out earlier how Catholic religious holidays and rituals remain important calendrical markers (for example, see Encadrement).  Coincidentally, it's La Toussaint (All-Saints or All-Souls Day) again, a convenient date on the religious calendar around which to schedule a secular two week school holiday and bank holiday.  Yet there must be some lingering religious meaning to this time of year too, judging from the persistent and popular ritual of visiting cemeteries and family burial plots to leave potfuls of mums.  (I first noticed this ritual last year, see Un week-end champignons.)  Do the French believe in les âmes des vivants et des morts (the souls of the living and the dead), like the family of Henrietta Lacks that I mentioned above?  Maybe, maybe not.  One can certainly follow rituals without attributing any religious meaning to them, and the meaning of the ritual can shift to take on less religious undertones.  It may be that it just feels good or right to remember one's ancestors, to sweep off their gravestones, and to leave huge pots of chrysanthemums in mid-autumn, without attributing any of this to a belief in these ancestors' souls.  (The photos here show the special flower market adjacent to Cimetière St. Pierre in Aix, and burial plots within the cemetery adorned with fresh pots of flowers.)  The point is that religion remains salient, whether we are in 21st century secular France, or in the acclaimed hospitals and centers of scientific research of the past century and today.  Even when religion seems overshadowed by medical advances, secular laws, and empirically based discoveries, the influence of religious traditions and the persistence of religious beliefs and behaviors show us that religion remains a potent social force, one that helps many people interpret their world and their place in it.

13 October 2012

Who is barmy over what?

This week, an article in the NY Times suggested that Americans are sprinkling their speech with ever more British English phrases.  (See Americans are Barmy over Britishisms, by Alex Williams, Oct. 10, 2012.) The author attributes this in part to the coolness factor, that it's posh these days to sound British.  Also, we have more knowledge of the hippest British vernacular given the proliferation of media available on so many personal technology gadgets, and we mimic the expressions and fashions of American celebrities who have settled in Mother England.

I know another place where British things are posh, and that is in France.   Here, all the way down in the south, department and home furnishing stores peddle lamps and dishes and throws and knick-knacks with Union Jacks or pictures of British teapots or cute British phrases printed on them.  I know it's not the British ex-pats in town who are buying these up!  American symbols are also extremely popular here, especially on clothing.  In this regard, the Stars and Stripes trumps the Union Jack, I'm afraid.  I've seen more people wearing Stars and Stripes t-shirts here in Aix than I ever did in Seattle, and I've seen a few red-white-and-blue bikinis on sale in town and worn at the beach.  I have even seen U.S. flag scarves(!) wrapped carefully and elegantly around the graceful necks of older French women.  (I don't love this last fashion, but somehow the French seem to pull it off, as usual).  Anglophonia is popular here too, but limited mostly to the kind of vernacular one might pick up from American and/or British music videos, like the f-word that is spouted frequently around town by the younger set.

While I can't say for sure if Americana is equally popular in the British Isles, I am realizing that the popularity of Britishisms and British symbols is at least matched by the popularity of French symbols and expressions in Britain.  The effect on language is the most obvious, from my vantage point.  We certainly use French phrases here and there in U.S. writing, but the dropping of French expressions seems especially common in British writing (and I've been reading a lot of British authors lately).  This week I finished reading a serialized novel by the entertaining Scottish-Zimbabwean writer Alexander McCall Smith (44 Scotland Street, 2005) whose fictional portrayal of daily life in Scottish capital was quite interesting to me given my limited knowledge and I learned some new Britishisms although I wondered if these were in fact Scottishisms?  (Do you know what a coeval is?  Someone of the same age; we'd call them contemporaries in American English.)  I was struck by two other things: a discussion between two characters about how revered the Americans are in Scotland, because they are seen as a 'special race', and the many French bon mots (witticisms, literally good words, here I'm using this to refer to simply French phrases) sprinkled throughout the installments.  (Smith explains that one character liked to use French phrases, but I felt that the use of these began to extend even beyond just this character.)   I somehow did not expect to read such a sentiment about Americans nor did I expect to find so many French expressions in a Scottish novel.  Actually this is a bit silly of me, especially in regards to the latter; I often have to remind myself that here in France, my family really is relatively close to the British Isles (much closer than we've ever been), and the history of the countries and nations there, Scotland included, are inextricably linked to the French in ways that I have not adequately appreciated earlier.  In U.S. schools we learn about the ties between Britain and the U.S. which perhaps gives one a mistaken sense of the singular importance of the U.S. to Britain when in fact, the French have always been the ones right here, across a much smaller pond.  And, even though the world is much more accessible to more of us, thanks to a digital shrinking of the social and cultural,  if not the physical, distances, it's still physical proximity and history that perhaps matter the most.  A French college student can buy that cool Union Jack coffee mug in France, but even better, she can spend just a few hours actually going to Great Britain, and the French have been doing that for centuries.  (Remember William the Conqueror?)  And the Brits have been coming south for an equally long time, to enjoy French food, wine, culture, sandy beaches, etc.  Evidemment (obviously), it's not just the Americans who are barmy...

02 October 2012

Les manifestations

The French are well known for their grèves (strikes), and we've experienced a few strikes by teachers, airport personnel, and railroad workers, as they protest working conditions, or labor agreements, or salaries.  Manifestations (demonstrations) are also popular here, among students and the general public who march in the streets.  Today was a big day of manifestations it seems, as I noted that two of my regular radio stations FRANCE INTER and FRANCE INFO were going to go off the air for an hour this morning to protest salaries.  A solemn marche blanche (white march) was planned for today near Grenoble to raise awareness of the savage killing of two youth last week.  And, to my surprise, I came upon a local manifestation on the street in front of the nearby lycée (high school) in Aix this morning on my way to meet a friend.  Four garbage bins blocked the middle of the road, two were set on fire, while students chanted nearby.  Two buses were unable to move forward, and finally, the police followed, the fires were extinguished, students dispersed, and I continued on my way.  The friendly police municipale (local police as opposed to national police) re-directing traffic told me that it was a manifestation about 'planning'.  Further down the road, some of those students swarmed a local grocery store around another lycée to steal eggs and tomatoes to throw at police.  It seems that students at two schools coordinated their demonstrations over the dissatisfaction over les emplois du temps (class schedules) and summer vacations schedules. (See newsarticle here.)

Demonstrations and strikes are tools that social groups may use to try to bring attention to social grievances and hopefully effect some kind of social change.  Many times these activities capture the attention of the public or the media for a short time, but it is relatively rare that they alone will bring about definitive change because there are so many other factors that come into play.  The social conditions and political climate have to be receptive, the social groups need to be well-organized, financed, and connected, etc.  In France though, social protests via strikes and demonstrations are popular ways for the citizenry to express its discontents, given that French citizens do not have a great deal of power to change things through other means in this highly centralized state.  They vote for their President directly, unlike Americans, but they do not vote in many of those who represent them, such as the prefects who hold a great deal of power, and citizens can't challenge the constitutionality of laws here as they can in the U.S.  So, manifestations and grèves give the common French a voice, and on occasion, this is loud enough to spur changes by those who have the power.

Coincidentally, over the past few weeks, I have been engaged in a bit of a personal manifestation myself, also over class schedules (just like those high school students above).  The issue has been that some of the foreign students at my children's public school now have regular French class in addition to their French as a Foreign Language classes (8 hours per week, a hefty load!), and the latter classes conflict with other essential classes like math and history.  I duly attended the early school meetings introducing parents to teachers, wondering how to proceed with my concerns about missed classes.  I gingerly approached the English teacher who was outraged on our behalf (and we weren't the only unhappy ones).  She encouraged personal and collective action.  I was skeptical, because 1-I don't speak French well, 2-we are not French, 3-the French school system is very centralized, authoritarian, and feels relatively inflexible.  I used my strongest protest tool (not tomatoes or fire), and I wrote, with a little help, two letters, in French, which outlined our concerns directly, clearly, and concisely, and I emailed these directly to the principal, acting deputy principal and the teachers whose classes were affected by my kids' absences or troubles.  While I received prompt and supportive emails from four teachers, I heard exactly nothing from any administrative staff for two and half weeks.  In the meantime, other concerned parents began organizing a planning meeting tomorrow for some collective action.  Then, out of the blue, on this day of nation-wide manifestations, I received a phone call and had a brief face-to-face meeting with the deputy principal, and the foreign middle school students came home with new, improved (but not perfect) schedules.  All this time, the administrators were working on addressing our concerns, yet they never directly acknowledged this until now, after the fact.  That is the difference between me and the French I suppose, this directness, and I suppose I shall have to cap this effort with one more letter, thanking the administrators directly for their efforts.  In the meantime, there is discontent among the very students affected, as the new academic schedules are grueling to be sure, but the bigger problem appears to be that these schedules cramp the social schedules of the students in this household.  Already there have been some manifestations here protesting parental interference in academic affairs....

25 September 2012


The two Washington towns in which I have spent most of my life are quite young.  Seattle was established in 1869, and Hoquiam, the coastal logging town in which I grew up, was incorporated in 1890.  My birthtown, Helsinki, is considerably older, having been established in 1550, and I've always loved that I originally come from an old settlement.  Perhaps that was why I was so attracted to the old town of Tallinn, Estonia, for my dissertation fieldwork.  I was there about five years after Estonia regained its independence, and I wandered the streets of the beautiful Hanseatic old town daily (it dates from the 1200s).  I lived outside the historic city center, in a residential part of town that was both old and relatively young, with centuries-old wooden buildings interpersed with Soviet-era highrises from the 1940s and 50s.  Today, parts of Tallinn look much newer, even though I have not yet witnessed its metamorphosis into a truly contemporary European capital.

Luckily for me, moving to Aix gave me another opportunity to live in a really old city, with some Roman ruins sprinkled here and there, and lots of quaint old X's bracing walls, as in the photo above.  I describe our family's move to our current location in a post from last December (Emmenagement).  It's funny to think that the quartier (quarter) in which we live is in fact called the villeneuve (new town)The villeneuve was built up from 1590 until the 1700's, as compared to la vieille ville, the 'old town', which dates back to the Roman period up until the 14th century.  This notion of new towns and old towns offers a wonderful example of how we construct different social meanings, sometimes for even the same words, depending on the time and place in which we live.  To the Aixois in 1600, our part of town was the new town, and it remains one of the younger parts of this old city, even though currently some very new construction is taking place just south of the city center.  On the other hand, if we want to talk about new towns in a more global sense, Seattle is definitely a villeneuve! 

I'm currently pre-occupied with one other villeneuve and this one is not so much socially constructed as it is creatively constructed.  I mean that it is not a real town, but it's the name of a fictional town that is the subject of a French television series called Un village français (A French Village).  One can even visit the fake town virtually on the official website.  I learned about the series from my Finnish friend here whose family first followed the show on Finnish television.  (Not a single French person that I've asked knows the series, despite the fact that it features some well-regarded French actors.)  The series imagines the experiences of the French in their small towns during the Occupation in World War II, and the first season's episodes are each followed by some short historical reminiscences of actual French citizens who lived through the Occupation.  ("They were there...." says the caption under the title in the photograph below.)  I was able to purchase the boxed dvd set of seasons 1-4, thinking that I could improve my French comprehension by following engaging story lines, and learn about some French social history at the same time.  (I've just begun the second season and have discovered that I'm going to have to do some seriously listening because the subtitles suddenly end after the first season's dvds.)

So far, I understand that the Occupation brought about some significant changes in the relationships among the people in town and in the ways in which the town operated.  As a mirror for the French war experience, the series shows how all kinds of different private interests came to the fore as a result of the Occupation.  For some French, the urge to go on as before was strong but impossible to do fully, given the restrictions placed on ordinary activities.  New rules governing social activities forced some French to leave or lose their jobs, and others to adjust their diets, their daily movements and their hopes for the future.  Other French saw opportunities not only to survive but perhaps even to prosper, by cozying up to the Germans or by dabbling in the black market, perhaps even at the expense of their fellow neighbors (a point that has often been conveniently overlooked by the French until very recently).  And then there were those who saw the openings for other kinds of clandestine activities, on behalf of the French resistance or the latent communist movement.  As the series progresses, Villeneuve is becoming a new town because of the Occupation, and I suspect that when the series is over, the town will no longer look like or feel like the one in the opening episodes.  I suppose this is true of all human settlements; they are always in flux, but sometimes external forces, or violence, or new ideas, bring about change more quickly than at other times.  In some ways, this is exactly what I was thinking about in my last post about Marseille, a real French town that seems to be on the brink of something new (see Du Shit). 

18 September 2012

Du shit

We've been smelling du shit all summer, at home and at the beach.  Attention (beware), Anglophone readers: I'm not talking about doggie do-do on the sidewalks.  Du shit is marijuana, a substance with its own distinctive smell.  (Du shit is another one of those faux amis, or false friends, where the same words mean very different things in French and English).  A neighbor seems to have an insatiable appetite for l'herbe (grass or marijuana), and luckily for that neighbor, the drug capital of Europe just happens to be down the road from our town (as well as from the beach), so a direct supply line isn't too far away.  That supply line, however, is probably one source of the violent conflict that has been taking place between rival drug gangs in Marseille all summer, resulting in nearly two dozen deaths.  (Update to my post: Click here for a NY Times article summarizing the situation, 9/19/2012.)  A new national level police commissioner has been appointed just for Marseille in an effort to get a handle on the situation, while a news magazine today has called Marseille, which is France's second most populous city, a 'lost territory', and ponders how we have arrived at this point.

I do not know Marseille well, having visited just a few times, and I have yet to feel drawn to it, despite its potent sociological appeal.  Demographically, it is an extremely diverse city, both in terms of ethnoracial identity and age.  About 20% of Marseillais are foreign-born, and they come from all over: Spain, Italy, Corsica, Armenia, Turkey, the far East, northern Africa (Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco), central Africa (Ivory Coast, Mali), southern Africa (Comorros).  We got a glimpse of this rich variety last fall at the prefecture in Marseille.  I felt very white, blonde and boring, as I watched families enter and leave the waiting room for processing work and residency permits.  I was entranced by the colorful veils, scarves, saris, caps, headdresses, bangles, beads, gold jewelry, and by the huge variety of skin tones and ethnic backgrounds (the ones I could surmise anyway).  On the other hand, I also recognized the impoverishment and subtle desperation in the demeanors of some in that room and on the steps outside the building.  In fact, Marseille will not be the promised land for all of these comers.  Because of the persistent immigrant flux, the unemployment rate is high and the city is relatively poor by the standards of other French cities.  One sees this just by looking at the city's urban core; parts are dirty, dingy, and gray, with copious graffiti adding rough swatches of color both to once-elegant apartment façades and to newer cement apartment blocks.  I have also felt, more than once, a slightly menacing ambiance along some streets, particularly those that appear virtually empty in the center and those that are filled with idle men sitting at cafes passing the time while nursing their pastis (the famous Marseille anise-infused aperitif).  When legitimate or lawful economic opportunities are few, illicit ones, like drug trades, will exist and persist (as may drug wars and other related phenomena).  Unfortunately, the social and physical environments will reflect those.

Does this mean Marseille is a city lost to drugs?  It has always been an unusual French city because of its grittiness and multiethnic character.  Perhaps the civic pressure is reaching a bubbling point right now, as Marseille is just about to become the 2013 European Capital of Culture.  It feels like there is still much to be done, with significant construction underway, creating persistent traffic problems in major parts of the city, not to mention the security issues posed by the criminal activities in a few districts.  I am sure Marseille will eventually ascend to its role as capital of culture, and perhaps it will shed its other 'capital' reputation, if for a short while.  As I have discovered, sometimes the paths to achievements here in France are those that are the most sinuous and least expected.

Speaking of such paths, I took one last Friday evening in Marseille, in a part of the city I had never seen before.  We drove into and through the urban center, then along the beach in the 8th arrondissement (district or section of a city), all the way south until the road narrowed and became bumpy and then ended.  We left our car and hiked along a rough-hewn rocky path through a calanque (rock formation) for about 100 meters, towards the very tip of the calanque, to the very tip of France in fact.  And there we found a little Marseille restaurant, hidden truly at land's end, where we ate the freshest dorade (snapper or bream) we have ever tasted, while looking down at the roiling turquoise sea just meters away and at the dramatic rocky islands in front of us.  What other 'lost' treasures does this city have for us?

10 September 2012

Noms et prenoms

What a difference a year makes!  After a steep learning curve last September, this year we have managed la rentrée (what the French call the return to school, work, and normal life after the summer holidays) quite nicely.  By ourselves, we have purchased our own school supplies at Carrefour and Geant Casino, completed the forms for school, written our own checks for school lunches and sports registrations, and arranged our French classes.  It helps that our French has improved (not greatly, but enough) and we understand better how the French do things.  Yet, as I wrote many months ago, learning the customs in a new social environment, whether it is a school, social group, or even a society, is often a remarkably humbling experience, (see Humilité), and it is also a persistent one.  After one year, the lessons continue!  Here's my latest one:

To start the school and sports year off right, I decided while sitting at the sidelines of a soccer tournament last weekend, to engage my closest and most patient French friend with compiling a list of names, of my boy's teammates and their families.  It still amazes me that last year, I managed to faire les bises (kiss cheeks) with people multiple times a week at youth sport practices and matches yet I barely learned anyone's names.  It's like these weren't important.  I never even learned the soccer coach's last name last year.  In contrast, in the U.S., we have rosters and lists with the contact information, for sports teams, classrooms, schools, clubs, employee groups.  And, when we greet each other with handshakes, at least the first time, we almost always exchange first names.  In the first week of any U.S. course that I teach face-to-face, I memorize all of my students' names, to create more direct connections between me and them and to facilitate more active student participation during the course.  (I really do!  I do not however retain the 40 names in my head beyond the quarter, as I have new names to memorize and limited cerebral capacity.)  Here in France, upon meeting someone new, I have taken to introducing myself by saying my first name while exchanging kisses.  I think though that in that side-by-side motion of les bises, rather than with the direct gaze that comes with facing someone and speaking one's name while shaking hands, the French person is not really understanding the pronunciation of my Finnish name, and I certainly can barely make out the mumbled response.  (Did he just say Laurent? Vincent? Or did I hear a different sound at the end; was that Florian? Julian? Lucien?)

So, last Saturday, my friend and I began making a soccer team list for me, and it quickly became a game for some of the other parents on the team who joined in.  The entries grew into a list of the prenoms (first names) of players, parents AND siblings, even some of whom I'd never seen at any matches or were long grown up.  It became clear that the parents didn't all know each other's names even though most of the team had been together for almost two years.  Names were being tossed around, guessed at, and then spelled to me in rapid-fire French.  At one point, a soccer dad looked a bit startled when asked by one of my helpers for his absent daughter's name.  I piped up, explaining that I was trying to learn everyone's names, and I added, with a smile, that perhaps I could greet him by name the next time I saw him.  He didn't look relieved or convinced by this, even though we have exchanged dozens of bises with each other by this point and have attended at least 2 tournaments and many trainings together.  When I decided I also needed everyone's noms (last names), I passed the notepad over to a helper so that the French names could be written down more quickly.  After we accounted for all the players, the list was done, the game was over, and I put away my notepad.

I later realized that the list wasn't actually complete because we had forgotten to list the coach and his daughters.  I also realized that no one had thought to ask the names in my family.  Did the others not care about our names?  Why was this such a novel thing, to compile a list of names?  Nadeau and Barlow in their insightful book, Sixty Million Frenchmen Can't Be Wrong: Why we love France but not the French, suggest that the French conceptions of public and private spaces, behavior, and information differ from those of North Americans and I would say, of many northern Europeans as well.  The authors relate an experience which in a North American context amounts to a fairly intimate exchange, a visit into someone's home.  In France, such a visit has different implications, and it does not automatically imply that the names of the visitors or hosts will be exchanged.  Imagine visiting someone's home without learning their name!  Nadeau and Barlow suggest that exchanging names and occupational information in the French context amounts to a very private, intimate exchange, whereas having someone over for aperos (drinks) is a public, social activity that does not require the exchange of personal information.  The same must be true of sports events; the French families spend hours and hours together, eating together, and watching the children play their hearts out together, sometimes with great emotion, but to them, we are not in a social setting, or participating in a social activity that requires us to know the names of the people around us.  Clearly there are some different understandings and perspectives of what is private and intimate information and behavior, and what is fairly public or open.

Given my bicultural upbringing, I have had lots of experience switching between cultural contexts and with changing behaviors to match those contexts.  I'm sure those experiences have helped me and my family 'go local' here in France.  We can follow the customs, but sometimes we haven't immediately understood why the customs are the way they are.  It helps to remember that people see their social worlds in different ways for all kinds of reasons.  After all, it's partly the sociologist in me that makes me need to figure out people's identities.  I want to know where they are from, what social groups they are a part of, and what they do.  Knowing people's  names helps me sort them.  I do understand why that soccer dad does not mind being nameless, or maybe even prefers it, given the social world he lives in.  My world though is highly colored by my sociological perspective and my multicultural life; in that world, I need to know who this father is!

24 August 2012

Les files d'attente

In a French book I just finished, about the experience of the two young French brothers who survived the Titanic sinking (as it is imagined by the daughter of one of those survivors, Les enfants du Titanic: l'histoire vraie de deux rescapées, Elisabeth Navratil, 2012), I learned a very useful phrase, les files d'attente (the waiting lines).  I have written about waiting lines in France several times earlier, and unlike what must have been a line of increasingly desperate and impatient Titanic guests waiting to get on life boats, the French in general seem to endure waiting lines more complacently and certainly very frequently.  The French faire la queue (stand in line) multiple times a day, at the grocery store cheese counters, check- out aisles (see Je ne sais quoi), bakeries and butchers, and I've been told more than once to take a book with me if I need to do business at the government offices for car registrations and immigrations (see Les Documents for a remarkable photo of the wait list screen at the Marseille prefecture last summer that shows how slowly government workers seem to move; only the officer at counter 10 was seeing a client, #828, at that moment, while there were hundreds of others waiting to see someone about their immigration papers.).  I have also recounted the rain that preceded my driving theory exam (Humilité) but I neglected to mention the nearly 2 hour wait for the start of the exam: scheduled time 8:00 am, actual time after 10:00.  I can tell you now that that experience was followed some weeks later by another file d'attente, this time in the hot sun in a dingy parking lot, for the practical driving exam.  The posted time of the exam, 9:45, was actually the time that the four students from my driving school were to arrive at the parking lot, driven over by one of our instructors.  After a private conference between the instructor and examiner, each student drove off with both instructor and examiner for about 25 minutes while the rest of us waited.  My exam, the last one, was underway finally around 11:15.  (Despite the heat and too much time to worry, I did pass, by a comfortable margin.  Even there though, the French tested my patience, because I had to wait an entire day for the results!)

While it might seem that there is some French exceptionalism to waiting in line, it is also very likely that French companies and organizations are quite aware of and use the copious scientific data available on line-waiting.  Alex Stone describes some of this research briefly in his recent New York Times piece.  ("Why Waiting is Torture." August 18, 2012. The New York Times online ).   For example, psychological studies suggest that consumers wait in lines more easily and with less complaining when they are occupied.  The larger supermarkets in Aix keep their shoppers who carry les cartes de fidélité (club cards as we call them in the U.S.) busy by letting them scan their own groceries with individual, handheld scanners, as they shop.  The shoppers then place the goods into their carts, directly into bags they have brought from home.  Then, these special shoppers stand in separate, purportedly shorter, automated check-out lines to process their scanned purchases.  The time-savings is questionable though, as we have been stymied more than once by long check-out lines for completing these transactions and by 'error' messages requiring assistance from clerks anyway.  Consumers though feel less frustrated if they are doing something worthwhile even if the wait isn't shortened.  At another smaller grocery store, I can get the weather report and my weekly horoscope on the television screens above the check-out area as I wait for the customers ahead of me.

Another line-waiting 'trick' detailed in the research is to provide customers with a sense of their progress in line, as they also tend to be more satisfied when they feel they are moving along quickly.  The inflated waiting times at Disneyland attractions as described in Stone's article are likely mimicked by French companies.  Recently, while waiting to chat online with a customer service representative at Orange.fr, my French cell phone service provider, I was periodically updated with my 'wait status', and even if there really weren't 10 customers ahead of me already chatting, I was able to do something else at my desk while tracking the dwindling number of chatters ahead of me until it was my turn.  It seems we all appreciate knowing that there is a clear end to our waiting.  I can tell you that when confronted with uncertainty in this regard, the French are every bit as impatient as people elsewhere.  We hear furious car horn honking multiple times a day as files d'attente appear along our narrow old town street when delivery personnel stop their vehicles suddenly to make a delivery, or as private individuals load or unload their cars or parallel park their cars into tiny spaces or simply can't decide which way to go.  I have even been yelled at by an impatient, rude, gesticulating French driver as I was standing on the street when my departing visitors held him up for a few minutes as they loaded their car with their luggage.  That was at once a uniquely French experience as much as it was a universal one.

17 August 2012


Back in the 1700s, one Tobias Smollett traveled from England to France and then Italy, and in the letters he wrote back home, he complained quite a bit about travelers' lodgings and the auberges (roadside inns) in France, finding them in general dirty, uncomfortable, and exceedingly expensive.  (He was quite a curmudgeon, but many of his observations seem to remain relevant today.)  These were not like tourist spots of today but rather simple stops along the road where travelers could get food and rest while exchanging horses for the next leg of their trips.  Perhaps the most appropriate modern day equivalent might be the aires (or rest areas) along the French highways, and I'm afraid there is still some room for improvement 250 years later.  These rest stops are run by private companies and typically feature full service gas stations, toilets, and a range of dining options, but I wouldn't describe them as terribly clean or inexpensive or of good quality.  To be fair, this is generally true of rest areas in many places around the world.  On the other hand, in 21st century France, one can still take care of private business in many of these aires standing up, using the simple but primitive hole in the floor!  As for overnight accommodations, our experiences have been limited to Paris, Lyon and northern and eastern France, where we've stayed generally in teeny, tiny hotel rooms or generic hotel chain rooms and one condominium.  Overall, comfort and exceptional cleanliness aren't at the top of the list of adjectives I'd use to describe these mid-range accommodations.  (I know that there are many more impressive luxury holiday rentals, especially here in the South of France, but then we veer into a price range quite outside ours.)  Within our budget range, we haven't slept on many comfortable French hotel beds or enjoyed sparkling and well-supplied hotel bathrooms.  Sometimes the service seems a little begrudging too.

Perhaps this is one reason that we choose to spend some of our holidays in Germany; we truly appreciate the gemütlichkeit (a German word denoting comfort, coziness, friendliness).  We enjoy the friendly greetings and generous service, the airy down comforters and comfortable beds, and the exceptionally clean and bright furnishings.  For our recent summer holiday earlier this month, we stayed within the German-speaking world, opting for Austria, with some side trips to Germany.  In our limited experience, we unanimously award the gold medal for the best mid-range holiday accommodations...to Austria!  We rented a holiday flat for a week, adding two days to our original agreement almost immediately when we realized that this was going to be an excellent stay.  We had space, we had comfort, we had super clean windows, linens and floors, gorgeous petunias in overflowing flower boxes on our terrace, and a dishwasher that literally sparkled after its cycles.  We had free bicycles for the entire week, free secure parking, free use of tennis courts, pingpong, and swimming pool.  We had access to hiking trails and swam in an alpine lake not far from our flat and shopped in the nearby village.  Fresh rolls were delivered to our front door each morning, and when we weren't eating in, we had some delicious meals for almost half of what we'd pay in France.  (We did eat a lot of heavy meals, with meat and potatoes and apple strudel and beer, rather than the fresh produce we enjoy here in the South of France, but one can eat like that while on vacation, right?)  To us, the level of service and the accommodations seemed exceptionally generous but to the Austrians providing these, this was all very normal.  

Yet, I suppose one seeks different things from different places.  For our Austrian sojourn, we were seeking greenery, alpine views, cooler temperatures and we were even open to some rain, and we got those things and more.  In France, we look for different things.  One isn't going to find the same kind of gemütlichkeit and good beer as in Germany or Austria, but here we have Paris, we enjoy wonderful food and wine, we have seen amazing collections of art.  In the South, we appreciate the amazing climate and the wonderful Mediterranean.  In the 18th century, Smollett was seeking a cure for his physical ills, and despite his negative experiences at the French inns along the way, he was restored by his stay in the South (he stopped in Nimes, Montpellier and ended up in Nice).  Likewise, while we certainly enjoyed our brisk and uncrowded alpine lake swim in the Austrian alps the week before, we continue to seek the pleasures provided by the turquoise seawater, the warm sand, and the beach atmosphere of the Med.  So do thousands of others who visit our part of France each year.  Here is a small portion of them at the beach at Ste Croix near Marseille this past Assumption Day (August 15). 

Smollett, Tobias. 2010. [1776.] Travels Through France and Italy. London: Tauris Park Paperbacks.

30 July 2012

Un stage multisports

My kids participated in a stage last week in Aix.  (Stage can be translated as an internship or a training camp; here, I'd say it translates best as a day camp.)  Day camp experiences are nothing new for my urban, millenial kids whose summer times are way more structured than mine ever were.  In Seattle, they would have weeks of day camps and swimming lessons and a one-week sleep-away camp on the Olympic Peninsula, alternating with 'free' weeks at home or with either set of grandparents, full of play dates and the occasional sleep-overs with friends or cousins.  Idyllic, unplanned summers are no longer the norm for many middle class U.S. children whose lives are often arranged around the pursuit of becoming well-rounded and active.  It's true that even French children have opportunities to attend stages during les vacances scolaires (school holidays).  The big difference between organized summer activities for U.S. and French children though is in the variety of camp choices that are available.  Here, I've not seen long published lists of local summer camps, and the camps that do exist seem to be largely sports-oriented. (The main stage in town is one that does offer a variety of non-sports activities and outings but it fills up each year as soon as it is open for enrollment and so I know very little about it.)  Our boys ended up at a stage multisports (multisport camp) run by a local physical education teacher, and in August, they have the opportunity to attend another similarly sports-oriented one at a local country club.  In general, I am not aware of craft, cooking, music or other non-sports camps as one finds in a city like Seattle.

Despite the apparent lack of variety in summer camp offerings, we learned something last week about the popularity of what might be considered 'alternative' sports in the U.S.  The French of course love the globally mainstream sport of football (soccer), and they are crazy about rugby, which isn't as popular in the U.S., but it is the X games genre of sports that seem to be especially popular here.  These are the sports that involve board- or bike-riding tricks and are often coupled with ample doses of alternative music and street fashions.  At the boys' stage multisports, they learned how to use ripboards (twisty skateboards), and they spent part of another day at a popular private outdoor park just adjacent to the autoroute, sliding along tyroliennes (ziplines ) over land and water.  Among their French friends, several left youth soccer behind years ago and now spend hours perfecting and filming their tricks and techniques on trottinettes (scooters) and skateboards at local skate parks.  One of our boys has even bought himself a trick scooter at a popular local skate shop so that he can learn techniques from his friends, while the other boy is contemplating the purchase of a longboard, both of which we see all over Aix.  Of course, road biking is also popular here, what with the Tour de France and the challenging country roads here in the South, but among the younger set, BMX riding is the thing.  Adjacent to the more traditional football fields and stadiums, we've seen a number of  BMX tracks.

BMX riding of course is a new category in the more traditional Olympic games that are taking place right now in London.  I don't know yet if the French will be glued to the television during the BMX competition, but in just three days of watching French coverage of les jeux olympiques (the Olympic games), we have watched more judo, fencing, table tennis and handball than we EVER did on U.S. television.  These aren't all that mainstream in the U.S. despite being somewhat more traditional sports, but they have an avid following here.  Actually, I can see why.  From judo's formal bowing, down-to-business engagement, and brutal fighting, to the interesting contrasts between fencing's ancient artistry and elegant footwork and the electronic bells and whistles of the equipment, and the amazing physical reflexes required of table tennis and handball, we are spellbound by the French and other athletes participating in these Olympic categories.  (And the French commentators covering these sports are every bit as excited as those reporting on basketball or swimming.)  It makes sense now why some French kids bring ping-pong paddles to school to play table tennis in the schoolyard during the breaks between classes, and why the men's handball team in Aix gets the broad press coverage it does.  The pursuit of excellence in sport is fairly universal today, (given how even the smallest countries send athletes to the Olympic games), but the sports we pursue or follow may differ significantly, by society, and even by generation.  I'm sure one can guess which viewers in my household are anticipating the trampoline and BMX competitions and which ones are waiting for gymnastics and track and field.  As for national differences, we'll see how interested the French are in these sports as we follow the television coverage here this week, and next week, we'll track the Austrians' television coverage of the Olympic games from our vacation perch in the mountains of Tyrol.  Maybe we'll come across some ziplines, or tyroliennes, there too.

17 July 2012

Les spectacles

Spectacle is one of those French words that has a slightly different connotation when interpreted by an English-speaker.  Spectacle is pronounced spek-tahk in French, and it refers simply to shows or performances; my French friend described her young daughters' end-of-the-year dance recitals as spectacles, but we've heard the word used to refer to all kinds of shows, such as a fireworks displays, musical performances, and it was even used to refer to the opening ceremony at the soccer tournament I mentioned in my last post, Une semaine en Espagne.  For me, and I think for many Anglophones, the word, especially as it is pronounced in French, signifies something really grand and amazing, along the lines of the English word 'spectacular' (used as a noun, e.g. a circus spectacular).  As a result of this interpretation, we've had some pretty high expectations of spectacles.  Yet, as often happens when one tries to translate words and ideas from one language to another, sometimes something is lost in translation.  Some of the spectacles we've seen in the past week have left us scratching our heads a bit.

As a treat for us and our Seattle visitors this past week, I searched for tickets to some spectacle that would allow us to enjoy a musical or arts performance outdoors on a warm Provençal evening (but that would not set us back 200+ euros per ticket, as that was all that was available for Aix's world-renowned Festival international d'art lyrique opera festival that was happening at the same time).  What I found was a show that was described as including modern dance, classical music, and mirrors and illusions, and that was free to children under age 12.  It sounded magical, engaging, and family-friendly so I even invited another family to join our group.  We expected to sit on the grass on our own blankets at a lovely city park, in front of a big stage, listening to loud and lively music and watching lots of dancing and pretty costumes, lights, and perhaps magic tricks with mirrors. Instead, we found ourselves in one corner of the park near a small stage, with not enough folding chairs for the crowd, and a hostess who spoke to the audience in French without any voice amplification.  Most of us could not hear a thing she said (and some of us would not have understood anyway), and she refused to repeat herself to the back of the audience when someone asked her.  Then, four simply-dressed performers came out and presented a dramatic and stark modern dance interpretation of Shakespeare-influenced stories, with a spare musical accompaniment provided by a sole cellist (and with the ambient noise of traffic racing by on the other side of the stone fence).  The mirrors were little foil-covered decorations fluttering from the trees towards the back of the stage, and the magic and illusions were all metaphorical.  A French mother left partway through with her young children in tow, obviously not finding the performance to be quite as billed, and our own children and we squirmed, we stifled giggles, and somehow, we endured what I would call a spectacle that was very French, and a bit weird.  We did appreciate the skill and artistry of the dancers and the symbolism of their modern dance, but I'm not sure we quite understood the illusions that were supposed to reveal truths, or the copious applause and bowing afterwards.  The rest of the audience seemed very impressed, and the performance clearly met or surpassed their expectations.

Two evenings later, La Fête Nationale (French national day, or Bastille Day as Anglophones call it) was upon us.  While the customary fireworks display in town was not going to happen (due to too many wind-related cancellations over the years), the Aixois were going to celebrate the day with an evening lighting spectacle at the Rotonde fountain called Les lumières du 14 juillet, and a bal (street dance) along the main boulevard.  We arrived at 10 pm to see a 10-15 minute LED light display on the fountain set to recordings of popular classical music selections.  The lights were pretty and the show was apparently the first of its kind in France (see the Aix mayor's bimonthly publication "aixendialogue" no. 55, Juillet/Aout 2012, p. 10), but it did not quite live up to its billing.  To us, the lights were not as spectacular as real fireworks or even as light shows we've seen elsewhere.  The show was rather anti-climactic actually, as it was then repeated several times so that everyone could see. 

We then turned to make our way toward the stage set up at le haut du cours (the top of the boulevard) where we were surprised by an entertaining and well-rehearsed song and dance show performed by a talented group of saxophone and horn players, a keyboardist, a guitarist, a troupe of professional dancers, and four singers.  The crowd was so unexpectedly thick that we couldn't dance or even see the stage except from the side.  We were most amazed by the musical selections that were being performed on this night of French national day: the program was almost entirely made up of American show tunes, from Westside Story, the Wizard of Oz, New York, New York, Hair and others!  (Songs by Abba were the sole exception that I noticed.)  The show was joyful and fun, and I could hear the French all around me singing along with the performers to the songs from Grease.  But it was, again, another spectacle that turned out to be not at all what we expected, this time because the musical choices did not seem congruent with a celebration of French nationhood.  Actually, the more I think about it, the more I realize that surprise is probably a key element of the word spectacle, the idea that what one is about to see is going to surprise in some way.  As we've discovered, sometimes the surprises are positive, sometimes not.  In many ways, this sums up our nearly year long stay in France so far; like the spectacles of the past week, we continue to be surprised by what we are experiencing here.