31 January 2012

La Vie Scolaire

Such a pretty sight to wake up to this morning, a proper dose of l'hiver (winter) in Provence.  All week the low temperatures will be below freezing, and we'll have some of the gray clouds and familiar damp coldness that I seem to prefer in winter (perhaps because for me it balances the energetic brightness and heat of summer?).  I felt downright buoyant wheeling my jaunty, yellow shopping cart through the wet snow/rain.  The pretty snow scenes we could see from our 4th floor apartment were replaced at the ground level by wet pavements and little patches of la neige (snow) on parked cars and on sills. The Tuesday marché (open-air market) in Aix was sparse, with few shoppers and fewer vendors than normal.  The poor fish guy was cutting into an Atlantic salmon with cold, red hands, and my regular fruit vendor was so bundled up, I had to get close to make sure it was his stall.

I skipped along until a phone call from my children, at school, jarred me.  They begged me to come get them early as they claimed to be just freezing at school.  Not only were they among the few in school, as the collège (middle school) draws from a broad geographical area, including kids who live in the no doubt snowier campagne (countryside), the kids who were at school were cold as their customary breaks between classes were taking place outside in the schoolyard, with the temperatures hovering near freezing.  It seemed strange to me that the school would not have made some accommodations to allow the kids to stay inside on a rare snowy and cold day, especially with fewer of them in school anyway.  In many ways, the school rules and protocols are confusing here, on the one hand quite strict, yet loose on the other.

To enter and exit school each day, the kids must show their Carnet de Correspondance, a booklet that contains their photo i.d. on the back, their schedule, pre-printed permission slips for parents and school officials to sign, the school handbook and rules, and a section for the teachers to send written notes to parents.  If the schedule that is taped to the back says a kid has class at a given time, then s/he cannot leave the school, unless the parents have signed the correct slip and the Vie Scolaire has okayed it by a certain time in the morning.  (Vie Scolaire is the staff or section that handles the absences, tardies and sanctions at school--the office of School Life?).  The photo here shows the front of Saku's carnet, and the back of Jori's, which has his photo, his schedule, and my signature which allows early dismissals in some cases, but not apparently all.  On every other Friday, half of my children's library sciences class does not meet, so I have to sign the purple slip excusing the boys from school lunch so they can leave early and not sit through an empty period at the end of the day.  If they were to stay in to eat lunch (my preference), they have to stay on the school grounds until 13h50 (1:50 pm) according to the rule printed in the carnet (the reason for which is not however clearly explained).

When there are circumstances such as we have this week at school, we have to pay close attention to the boys' daily schedule (which changes each day) and make sure we are signing the correct slips if we want to excuse them.  This week, both International Section teachers are chaperoning a class trip to England for the cinquièmes (7th graders, but called 5th graders, in France), so the English and History/Geography classes are not in session.  For the boys to leave early yesterday, yet eat lunch, I had to sign a slip for early dismissal (and I actually signed the wrong one, as the purple one meant they weren't supposed to stay for lunch...Their classmates were outraged that the boys were able to eat lunch yet skip out early too!)  Yet for the boys to enter school late tomorrow, apparently I don't have to sign the pink absence slip, nor the green late arrival slip because they aren't arriving late for a class, just later for school because of their cancelled English and History/Geography classes.  To add to the confusion, this morning we had the uncertainty presented by the snow (no notice on the school website announced the school opening or closure), AND the P.E. teacher was purportedly going to be on strike so I signed the pink absence slip for the first two hours when P.E. would have taken place.  It turned out the boys didn't need to show it.  We've experienced several teachers grèves (strikes), but not all teachers seem to strike at the same time or the same days, nor are we informed officially so I'm never quite sure when to excuse my kids early or to send them late or which slips to sign.  There are no substitute teachers here, or at least not for temporary absences.  If a teacher is out sick or on strike for a class in the middle of the day, the kids just have to spend a school period in study hall or outside waiting for their next class.  Sometimes, they even have to eat a less than stellar lunch as they did a few weeks ago, when the cooks and staff at the cantine (cafeteria) were on strike. 

So, this afternoon, I went to school at 13h50 to excuse the boys in person (since I hadn't signed any slips beforehand and we hadn't realized how cold and empty school would be, or that their last class would be study hall).  Inexplicably, the boys had just been let out by the usually hyper-vigilant staff (apparently the boys were able to convincingly make their case without my signature).  The staff person manning the door was able to figure out which kids were mine and tell me that yes, the jumeaux (the twins) had been let out.  And this is how I found those boys, walking home from school early, along the wet, cold streets of Aix....

23 January 2012

La nourriture

Astonishingly, since we moved to Aix in August, I have been stopped on the street at least a half dozen times and asked for directions, to this sight or that market.  I think it's because I seem to look like I know my way around the centre-ville (town center), as it certainly isn't because I look French with my blond hair and Nordic features or because I speak the language so beautifully!  Because I'm the main food shopper in the family, and because we live just steps away from two marchés (open-air markets), several charcuteries (delicatessens) and grocers, and many, many restaurants, one does quickly learn one's way around with the help of such food-based landmarks.  By now, I also definitely have my favorite food vendors and lunch spots.  On the other hand, there are still many culinary offerings to discover in our town, so our family's new year's resolutions this year involve la nourriture (food).

The first resolution is inspired by my spouse's recent trial of un régime végétalien (a vegan diet) recommended by his sister.  For the past 21 days or so, Allen has eaten a mostly vegan diet (no meat, dairy, eggs) which is quite a challenge in France where meat, butter and eggs are important elements of most meals.  Even my vegetarian friend who eats dairy, but no meat, poultry or fish, finds limited dining options for végétariens (vegetariens) in Aix, this despite the amazing proliferation of vegetables at the markets at all times of the year.  So, Allen has been cooking at home quite a bit the past few weeks, with the tofu and tahini we found at Asian and Eastern food specialty shops, filling our refrigerator with little containers of homemade hummus, refried beans and left-over rice and Thai curries with tofu.

Because of Epiphany, a few exceptions to the diet have been made for les galettes des rois and les gâteaux des rois (two versions of the Kings' cake exist here in the south, the more traditional butter-laden galette version with frangipane of almond paste or calissons, two of which appear in the photo's foreground, and the egg-laden brioche-like gateau version special to the south of France, shown in the red box).  Both versions are definitely not vegan, but they are traditionally eaten all month long at parties or at home, and so we have not bypassed any opportunity to enjoy these cakes (all in the name of extending our cultural experiences, n'est-ce pas?, right?).  And now, the initial 21-day diet has passed, with moderate success, and my spouse has resolved to continue, with some modifications (allowing eggs and small portions of meat here and there).  In turn, I've resolved to experiment more with the bountiful produce at the markets.  Last night we tried endives (endives, but pronounced on-deev) that are omnipresent at the markets and seem to end up in everyone's baskets except mine (they look like oblong cabbages or pale hearts of romaine lettuce).  These were braised with apples and grapes (à la Dorie Greenspan, Around My French Table) and served aside baked chicken.  Later in the week we'll try a vegetarian soupe aux lentilles (lentil soup), the pork-filled version which is a very common winter food in France, and then I plan to experiment with les poireaux (leeks), another popular market vegetable right now. 

Our second resolution is actually to eat out more!  Since we are living closer to the center of a town than ever before, we've resolved to take advantage of this more concretely, by going out once a weekend, on foot, sans enfants (without the kids, although the kids can come to any bar here).  The past two weekends, Allen and I have tried two different bars à vin (wine bars), one of which was a little 'young' for us (remember, Aix is a college town) and offered indifferent service, and the second of which included an elaborate discussion and presentation of our selected wine by the owner.  We were asked if we had already eaten (we had) and then our first choice of wine was rejected as too rich for the digestion that was taking place in our stomachs.  A very small glass of the wine we ended up with (from the Domaine des Cantarelles, a winery in Nîmes) was first poured into a carafe and swirled all around to coat the inside walls, and then returned to the glass.  An aerator with multiple feet was placed in the neck of the carafe, and the wine was decanted from the bottle through the aerator so that it flowed down its feet and then down the inside walls of the carafe.  Then the wine was poured from the carafe into our glasses and swirled before we were allowed to taste.  After some discussion, we and the proprietor all pronounced the wine souple (supple). 

Because many new year's resolutions are anything but supple, they are easily broken.  I am hoping since ours are based on food, something everyone needs and that is plentiful here in Aix, in various forms, we will be able to stick with the resolutions and in return, really get to know our town and its inhabitants.  Maybe someday soon I'll actually be able to tell someone confidently on the street, (if not in beautiful French!), that the fountain she seeks is sur la prochaine rue (on the next street), or better yet, that she'll find a really great restaurant or some beautiful lettuce tout droit (straight ahead)!

13 January 2012

Leçons françaises

At the end of January, we will have been in Provence, and in France, for 6 months.  You might be wondering how our French is coming along.  From the start of school in early September, both the boys, and Allen and I, have had des leçons françaises (some French lessons), the boys at school, and Allen and I privately, at our home.  The boys were put into a special beginning French for foreigners class with just a few other students, and while they may have felt that progress was slow initially, at les réunions de parents d'élèves (parent-teacher conferences) in December, their French teacher seemed pleased with their progress (at least that's what I understood as the conference itself was in French!).  This week both boys remarked that they feel they have made a huge amount of progress in understanding French.  Some subjects, such as SVT~sciences de la vie et de la terre (biology and earth sciences) remain difficult, even for the native speakers, and some teachers are a bit more willing to make accommodations than others to beginning French speakers.  Overall, the school has been quite supportive of our boys, and what the boys learn there is being reinforced by the opportunities to speak and hear French elsewhere.  They can order meals for themselves, as they did today at burger joint with some friends after their early Friday dismissal, they can get themselves to and from their sports trainings, and they bring new phrases home to share over the dinner table: c'est pas grave (it's no big deal, or it's not serious), or ça veut dire quoi? (what does that mean?).

As for Allen and me, we are putt-putting along with our twice a week lessons at home with our French professor.  With her, we focus on dialogues in our French book, or we discuss a current event or something in our lives (like apartment-hunting or ultrasound terms), building our vocabularies and grammatical skills.  Thanks to what we have learned, we are now able to arrange occasional rides to the boys' games or tournaments with French families, buy some major appliances and arrange delivery to our apartment, order food, like a 4-kilo turkey for Christmas, from the local butcher, and renew Allen's residency card at the sous-prefecture.  I am pleased that I can now understand the automated voice commands on my mobile phone well enough to delete old messages!  Most telephone transactions remain difficult though, so I relied on a native French speaking friend to set up the utilities in our new apartment, and Allen's co-workers have also helped.  Because of his work, Allen has more opportunities to speak and hear French than I do, although English is spoken quite a bit at the office.  His French comes with a German accent (he spent 6 months in Germany as an exchange student in high school and speaks German well).  If you've read any of the French Tintin comic books in translation, Allen sounds like one of the Teutonic villains in Tintin's adventures, all of whom pronounce the soft French cee sounds as zee's.  

We haven't yet seen the new film, but the comic books, in the original French, comprise Jori's and my new favorite French reading material.  We can actually read and understand the stories, and for me, I appreciate the reinforcement of the relative pronouns or an imperative verb form that I have just learned (although it took a French friend to point out to me that Tintin is pronounced tan-tan in French, not tin-tin like we say in English!)

Going back to the German, I am finally at the point where my French vocabulary is big enough that when I'm searching for a word, I'm no longer thinking of the German equivalent, as I was when we first came in August.  In fact, a bittersweet thing has happened in that my German, which I studied in high school and at university for six years, is being replaced by French.  I have realized this over the past few months as I have had the opportunity to speak German with a soccer parent originally from Strasbourg, and a local wine salesman from Düsseldorf, and each time I meet either of them, I find myself tongue-tied, saying oui instead of ja (yes) and mais instead of aber (but), and fewer and fewer words in German come to me.  It's an interesting phenomenon because while the German is being undermined, my Finnish does not feel at all impaired.  Linguists have long noted that children and adults acquire second languages differently, and UW neuroscientists who study language acquisition suggest that second language learning early in life may affect the brain's flexibility in how it learns and uses languages and perhaps even stores them  (see for example, http://www.washington.edu/news/articles/bilingual-babies2019-vocabulary-linked-to-early-brain-differentiation).  Perhaps languages learned in early childhood, such as my Finnish, occupy a different part of the brain or are accessed differently, than languages acquired later in life, as German was for me.  If so, that space where the German is or was in my brain isn't very large or deep, as I seem to have quickly cleared it out for the language I need at my disposal the most right now.  That said, my bigger issue is having enough opportunities to speak a more sophisticated French.  Because I work at home, spending many hours each morning online working in English, I supplement my lessons at home with a weekly or bi-weekly episode of Coffee Break French (see http://radiolingua.com/shows/french/coffee-break-french/ ) or I listen to French radio while I chop vegetables or wash dishes, and I read the French papers online as much as I am able.  I am comfortable with and rather enjoy taking care of business with emails or sms-messages in French, but speaking and understanding spoken French is really where I need to improve.  Most days, the only spoken French I typically exchange is with vendors or shopkeepers, or sports coaches.   It's not terribly conducive to getting my French to the next level, as I'm ready to move on from passé composé (present perfect tense) and to be able to say more than avez-vous la coriandre aujourd'hui? (do you have any cilantro today?).  I'm also quite motivated to stay ahead of my kids, so I'm thinking about how to accelerate my language learning.

All in all, our language situation at this point, almost six months in, c'est bon (it's good).  We're managing fine, and for me anyway, I am quite inspired by the non-native French speakers around us who have mastered enough of the language to be able to manage more complex transactions (like setting up their own utilities or completing French tax returns?!), and by my children's progress.  Most of all, I am especially grateful to our French friends who include us in social occasions where we can experience French in its most natural settings, as it is spoken among family members over meals, or among friends celebrating events like fête du rois (Epiphany) last weekend.  Those are the places for real language learning.

04 January 2012

De l'eau

In this first week of January and the beginning of a new academic quarter, I present to my introductory sociology students the idea that the social meanings of things, experiences, and interactions vary, depending on the social context in which we find them.  This context depends on both time and place.  I use several substances to demonstrate how social meanings shift in different social contexts, one of which is water.  (The other is saliva, but I'll reserve that example for the classroom!)  I suggest that water, even though it is an essential substance for human existence, can mean different things, to different social groups, in different places, in different times.  For centuries, water, that is, holy water, has cleansed the spirits of Christians, while in agriculturally-dependent communities all over the world, water has been sacred because of its economic significance.  In contrast, in one particular West Virginia town, water is poison, the source of many ills, something to be avoided.  (See http://www.nytimes.com/2009/09/13/us/13water.html?pagewanted=all ).  Understanding the differences in how social beings see and interpret water or any other aspect of our world is one of the first steps in achieving what we call the 'sociological imagination,' or that sociologically way of seeing the world.  

Here's what we've noticed about de l'eau (water) in Aix, a town that has variously been described as a town of water; long ago, it was a town of Roman baths, and today, there are many fountains throughout town dating from later times.  The four along the main boulevard alone, (the biggest and dare I say, gaudiest, being La Rotonde), are evocatively described by American M.F.K. Fisher in her memoir Map of Another Town (1964).  Pictured here are two others: above, the one near our apartment on Place des Prêcheurs, and a second one at the north end of Rue Mignet.  These, and the occasional faucets one finds, are well-used especially in the spring and summer, by locals and tourists wiping their faces, getting their feet wet, chilling wine bottles.  I wouldn't drink from them, some are quite mossy, but I've read you can.  In Fisher's account, the waters were seen as curative, offering potentially purgative and other effects.  (I say, let's avoid drinking that water, especially today, as our family is in the grips of une grippe intestinale, a stomach bug, and there is no need for additional purging).  The water supply in general though is apparently pretty good and plentiful, and Allen heard there are two local water companies, one of which is better than the other.  I don't know which one we have, but we like the water in our new apartment although it too tastes more mineral-y than what we are used to.  All of the water in town seems to leaves mineral spots, so we have to use a special decalcifying cleanser if we want to get rid of the spotty effect in the tub or shower stall.

Commercial water is sold widely here, in those ubiquitous water bottles, and we carried water everywhere with us in reusable water bottles last summer.  Interestingly, the practice at sports' trainings here is for athletes to drink from a collective water spigot rather than to bring water bottles, and at our boys' soccer and rugby matches, each team has a basket of 10-12 water bottles that are carried to the sidelines by the coaches to be shared by the team members.  I strongly encourage my kids bring their own Camel-bak water bottles to practices at least, and I do see that a few French kids come with their own, but most do not, not even the men who come to the fields for pick-up games.

As for water sports, swimming is popular and is even part of the middle school physical education curriculum (our boys have suggested that French kids are good swimmers).  There are several public swimming pools in Aix, and the one nearest us is cold and deep (it's used for water polo), and it has a retractable roof for those many hot days.  There are many private pools in Aix, mostly outside of the old town, and in the surrounding neighborhoods where houses, and thus yards, are more common.  (I've looked, with the help of Google Earth.)  We city dwellers rely on the public pool, or we trek to the Mediterranean beaches (about 45-60 minutes away), for sublime dips into the sea and picnic dinners as dusk approaches but the heat persists.  Due to the astonishingly mild winter here, we even spent this past Boxing Day at une Xmas Beach party at St. Croix, even though none of us went swimming.
Water as a source of leisure takes us back to those Romans, for whom water was vitally important economically but also conferred social status.  Ruins from the Romans' big water projects are visible throughout Provence and the south, the grandest being the Pont du Gard aqueduct which provided water to the town of Nimes (that's Saku and Jori in November 2011, after we walked up one of the trails so we could look into the top of the aqueduct).  At the museum sited near this ancient water works, we learn not only how the aqueducts worked, but also how access to water was a sign of social prestige in Roman times, and how this access was achieved by exploiting human labor.  The exhibit suggests that the water usage by the upper classes was often quite profligate.  The small remaining trace of the Roman baths in Aix too reminds us that water was once truly a luxury item, reserved for the rich, supplied by the poor.  Sometimes, in our quest to see how social meanings shift, we also see the uglier qualities of human society, many of which never change.