26 March 2012

Bisous et autre échanges sociaux

I wrote many months ago about how our boys are learning the language and customs of their current home not just through school but also through sports (see Le Foot, 9/23/11).  One particular custom that they have had to embrace very quickly here in Aix en Provence is the exchanging of cheek kisses.  This particular échange social (social exchange) is very important all over France, but is even more widely practiced in the south and not just between men and women.  Our boys had to get into the act pretty quickly as young athletes are more or less expected to line up and greet each coach properly on each cheek at every meeting.  For my spouse and me, the first few months at les entraînements (sports trainings) and weekend matches were awkward; the French parents and coaches didn't really know how to talk with us, let alone how to greet us.  With la bise (cheek kiss), or a handshake, or no eye contact altogether?  The interactions have changed considerably after the recent holidays and after we've indicated firmly that we can faire la bise (give a kiss), even though it still feels like a fairly intimate greeting and I have to stifle my instinct to put out my hand.  Now I can expect to greet and be greeted on the cheeks at any sports training or match by easily a dozen people, some of them with smacking lips, others with grizzly or cool cheeks, some with two kisses, others with four, but all of them cordial.  This past Wednesday, I arrived towards the end of Saku's football practice, and spent the first five minutes exchanging 10 bisous before I was able to sit down and bavarder en peu (chat a little).  After the practice ended, another 5-10 minutes was spent exchanging more kisses with two entraîneurs (coaches) and five 12-year old boys who marched over, making sure they greeted even la mère américaine (the American mother).  Cheek-kissing your way to and out of sports trainings and Sunday matches is very normal here, and my spouse says that at the office, one makes similar rounds in the morning, greeting one's co-workers.  One sees this in town too, between grocery clerks and restaurant workers going on and off work shifts.

We're not just exchanging kisses though.  Increasingly, the weekly sports trainings and matches are also places in which, through the limited but growing conversational exchanges we are able to have, we are building our social networks and our trove of social capital.  In my sociology of family course, we speak of social capital as something rather like financial capital, both of which families need in order to survive or achieve successful outcomes.  Most of us have social capital in the form of family, friendship, neighborhood, work, and school networks which we use to find information, services, jobs, and other important resources.  Building new social networks when one moves takes time and energy though, and the challenge is even greater when the networks have to be built in a language that one does not speak well.  Certainly, school networks are often the easiest avenue for building social capital, but we've found that meeting busy French parents via a large French public middle school is pretty difficult, and that the connections built on the sidelines of trainings and sports matches have come much more easily.  French soccer and rugby families have helped us get rides for the boys when our single automobile has made it impossible to be at two matches at the same time, and these families fill us in on weekend game times, locations and other important information, like local football club gossip shared over a goûter (snack) one fall afternoon.  This past week, a rugby family very kindly helped us find and get an estimate from a reliable garagiste (garage mechanic) at a carrosserie (auto body shop) for, ahem, a little dent we acquired on our car recently.  All of these social exchanges have added to the capital we need in order to live here successfully.

We've also had some very useful social exchanges with my spouse's co-workers, our French teacher, my Anglophone book group members, and the staff and fellow students at our new auto-ecole (driving school).   Even the limited school connections have been valuable; these led us to Jori's current piano teacher and to our initial apartment, as well as to some new friendships.  It is also through school that we will likely begin to repay some of the initial social capital 'investments' that were kindly made in us by the locals here.  As our boys are just about to start their last trimester of their first school year, we will soon no longer be the newbies here, needing so much help.  We've already been asked to share our perspective on the boys' school to some prospective American families, and I'm sure it will just be a matter of time before I am asked about school supplies, sports clubs memberships, French driver's licenses, and all this kissing.

15 March 2012


Upon discovering that I live in Aix, someone from the U.S. suggested to me that I am living 'the dream life of the 21st century.'  I like the sound of that!  The south of France IS dreamy.   The fountains and quaint streets and squares of Aix and many other Provençal towns are almost like movie sets, and the light here in the south of France, even when the sun is partially hidden, is surreal. (I see why it has been so popular with artists like Picasso, and why the British come here in droves.)  There are some truly dream-like spots, like the little restaurant I tried today, tucked away on a quiet street in Aix, with its almost-secret garden and sweet decor (the vintage French grocery store look), and we are dreaming of the first warm evening in which we can sit on our south-facing balcony to enjoy a languid meal and glasses of rosé as the sun sets.  And certainly, the fact that we are living and working in Europe is the fulfillment of a mutually shared dream, and in my case, that I can teach online for my U.S. institutions while living abroad is so 21st century.

Apparently, that rêve (dream) is not be shared by all of us though. When I suggested to my pre-teen sons over dinner that we are living a dream life, they gave me disdainful looks that mean I must be out of my mind.  Their so-called dream life just involved a few hours of homework, some of it in French(!), after a long day of school, some of it in French(!), that ended at 16h (4 pm), AND their math teacher signed their class up for a special exam in French(!) to be taken on what is normally their Friday afternoon off.  Pffft! Who was I kidding? 

No kidding, but it's that idea of the social context again.  What looks like a dream life abroad for some or even a vacation paradise to others, is actually a REAL life for us.  It's a bit like the opening to both the book and film The Descendants (one film we were able to see in English in Aix, book by Kaui Hart Hemmings): the main character suggests, a bit more colorfully than I am, that Hawaii is not the same paradise for its residents as it is for visitors.  Similarly, the south of France is where we live right now, and however dreamy it appears to be, living here is full of the mundane realities of daily life. This is just another way of saying that the social context matters in our understanding and experience of things.  A year ago, this was like a dream life, but now that we are here, this life is much more concrete and routine and not always so rosy.  Our social context has changed, and that change colors our experiences and my observations here keenly.  To my sons, France represents hard work (balanced with good food and more independence).  To me, I see contextual relevance everywhere; I've already shared my observations in an earlier post about how the meaning and purpose of water varies in this area (see De l'eau Jan. 4, 2012).  Now, I'm paying attention to social and temporal contexts in even my French lessons, because the correct usage of le passé composé (present perfect) and l'imparfait (imperfect) verb tenses depends greatly on social and temporal contexts.  I say, j'ai été à Lyon, if I tell you that last week I was in Lyon, but j'étais à Lyon if I'm just going to tell you about what I saw or did when I was in Lyon once. It doesn't help that both sentences sound almost the same.  I think I can say, without being too trite, that in my current social context, as foreigner in France, it really will be a dream come true when I finally learn how to use the verb constructions correctly and when I understand someone else who is using them.

08 March 2012

La journée de la femme

There I am, in Lyon, under the sign marking Auguste Comte street in Lyon.  Comte is often described as one of the fathers of sociology because his philosophy of positivism informed the developing field of sociology, by suggesting that social reality could and should be explained based on systematic analyses of empirical data, rather than by traditional beliefs and personal experiences.  Perhaps you notice in the photo also the red light and do-not-enter sign behind me.  I usually think of Comte as a green light kind of guy, you know, because he was a positivist, but the red light near his name can serve as a reminder to proceed with caution when we make generalizations about social life, to make sure that these are indeed grounded in empirical findings.  The red light and the do-not-enter sign could also be emblematic of something else, because when sociology was evolving as a scientific discipline, it was largely closed to women.  We have several 'fathers' in the field (Emile Durkheim is often named as the other one), but it is many decades before we can recognize any prominent women in the field.

Today, the light is no longer red, but it seems to be stuck on yellow, as women's positions still lag behind men's, on all kinds of markers.  We have empirical evidence that affirms this for us.  Just last week, my SOC 101 students looked at the gender gap in pay for U.S. adults as reflected in the New York Times, and many of them, men and women alike, were dismayed by the gender gaps in virtually all fields, up to 40% in some.  (See http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2009/03/01/business/20090301_WageGap.html) The story is very similar here in France.  Today is la journée de la femme, (international woman's day), a day that has official status in France in fact.  I saw signs on the street in Lyon encouraging the cultivation of gender equality and women's rights, (as shown on the pink poster), and the Olympique Lyonnais soccer club shop offered women a discount today on women's fan wear (alas, I don't wear much soccer fanware so the discount was not useful to me).  And the papers also noted the day.  Le Figaro, one of the national papers, offered two articles, one asking various people if such a day is still necessary and if it really advances the cause of women's equality (non seems to have been the general response).  Another article on the same page presents the latest findings on gender equality in France, and the title says it all, Les lents progrès de la parité (by Agnes Leclair, 8 March 2012, The slow progress towards equality).  The article presents a study from Insee, the institute for national statistics, that shows that French women earn 25% less than French men.  The income gap is similar to that in the U.S. if we refer to the data in the May 2010 New York Times interactive data noted above.  Family work comparisons on the other hand, show some interesting differences between the French and Americans, while also affirming some critical similarities.

For example, it seems that the French do more family work on a daily basis.  We can't compare different studies definitively as the measurements and the categories will vary between them, but the French study suggests that French women do close to 4 hours a day of family work, while U.S. women did about 17 hours a week in 2005, which would translate to about 2.5 hours a day.  That seems a little low for the U.S. while the French estimate is perhaps a little high (for U.S. data, see http://www.nsf.gov/discoveries/disc_images.jsp?cntn_id=111458&org=nsf ), but it does seem that French women do more family work than U.S. women do.  Another big national difference is that French men seem to not have progressed as quickly as American men have, in terms of their family work participation.  Since 1986, according to the L'Insee study, French men have added all of  6 minutes to the amount of family work they do, the daily rate today being about 2 hours 13 minutes.  U.S. studies suggest that U.S. men seem to have moved much more quickly, doubling their weekly hours of family work from 6 to 12.5 between 1976 and 2005.

Despite the national differences, French and U.S. women are very similar.  We see that French women and U.S. women do more than their national male counterparts, and we see that the most significant changes over time have been in terms of women's participation in family work, not in men's.  That is, the notable change is that French and U.S. women are simply doing less family work (and not that men are doing more).  Instead, women have given themselves a green light, to pursue other activities and other means for satisfying family responsibilities.  French and U.S. families today outsource more and more of the work, women are hiring childcare help (French women can use state-provided childcare services of course), gardeners, housecleaners, and they are shopping for prepared foods and other products designed to be simplify household work (robot vacuum cleaners, perhaps?).  Or, they are readjusting their standards, in childcare and in household cleanliness and in the quality of the food they prepare.  This is likely the direction we will continue in, in both France and the U.S.: women will do less, outsiders will do more, and men will slowly do a little more over time.  In that fashion, we may eventually reach gender parity, in family work contributions, and hopefully also in terms of pay. 

04 March 2012

Notre petite vie

Earlier this week as I was refreshing the flower pots on my front window sills with bright orange ranunculus flowers, I realized what has been so fun about apartment living in Aix.  It's like playing house!  On a much smaller scale than in our previous home, we've set up housekeeping here, filling the nooks and crannies of our French flat with our furnishings from home and whatever we've been able to find from other ex-pats and at dépôt-ventes (consignment stores) and thrift shops.  While our apartment isn't tiny, our adorable French kitchen requires a great deal of efficiency, with bowls stored inside other bowls on top of platters, and once Saku or I are seated at our small kitchen table, there's no vacating until Allen or Jori get up from the table.  (Here's Saku in his corner along with Jori, making egg rolls this week for dinner, on our very full little kitchen table.)  Likewise, our bathroom is also the laundry room and kitchen storage, so there's no room for 12 or 24-pack toilet papers or cases of tomato sauce or any of those features of the super-sized American lifestyle.  We do of course have a few cases of wine and champagne, but those are French essentials, and we have a space for them in the cave (cellar) many floors below us.

Our life in many ways is much smaller here. It's not that French live small lives, but relative to the very big and full U.S. life that we left behind last August, what we have here is smaller, simpler, and dare I say it, more relaxing?  Some of it may be a factor of apartment living, or of urban life, or of life particularly in the South of France, I'm not sure.  On the other hand, this small, simple life here in France, which while quite pleasant, is also a bit paradoxical, because to have it means to put up with some hassles that we are not used to.  I've heard others say that life is just a bit harder in France, or in Europe, compared to the U.S.  I think in some ways yes, but in other ways, perhaps no.

*SHOPPING for daily essentials: Not shopping every few weeks for jumbo packs of toilet paper as we did in the U.S. means going to the store more frequently here and buying smaller quantities.  I always found Costco warehouse shopping exhausting in Seattle, but it's equally physically grueling to walk back and forth across town, stopping at various shops for this or that item (never everything in one store), and then schlepping all back home.  (And imagine all this in the scorching heat of summer!)  I use my wheeled cart more and more frequently, and when I can, I use delivery service.  When we do shop with the car, driving to the megastores in the outskirts of the city, we have to drop bags off at the apartment main floor, and then circle around the city center to park the car in its garage, and then walk back across town to get those groceries hauled up to our floor.  Stores are also organized differently here, which may mean standing in various check-out lines for different items, like the kleenex I was trying to buy two weeks ago at Monoprix which was on a different floor than the groceries that I'd already stood in line to pay for.  At the warehouse hardware store, Castorama, which resembles Home Depot in Seattle, one has to walk back and forth across a parking lot to three different buildings and stand in three different check out lines to purchase garden items, home furnishings, and building materials. You just can't be in a hurry to get your shopping done.

*daily BREATHING: Living closer to other people on a smaller land mass, and especially in a concentrated urban setting in Aix, much like I had in Helsinki several decades ago, means everything and everybody is closer together: lots of people, little space, and lots of germs.  I still remember the wicked case of the Shanghai flu I got in Helsinki over 20 years ago, and these past two weeks, I am afraid that the French flu epidemic has ravaged our town and our family. (See http://www.connexionfrance.com/France-flu-grippe-epidemic-H3N2-13500-view-article.html )  You cannot walk down the street without hearing someone coughing or sneezing, and it just feels like that everywhere we go, hundreds of people have touched that same railing or those same door handles.  It's true that people get sick in Seattle, and my sister reports that a school in her San Francisco neighborhood actually closed due to a widespread outbreak of gastroenteritis last month.  But the space we have in the U.S., at least in our Seattle life, means we could isolate ourselves a little more easily from others.  We've been sick more than usual this year, but perhaps we are simply being exposed to many new and unfamiliar viruses and bugs.

*DRIVING small cars on small roads: As we did in Seattle, we have sports' activities to attend on the weekends, many of which require some travel.  We've also occasionally had conflicts with both boys' games on the same day and time.  These we've managed relatively smoothly, thanks to the willingness of parents on both the soccer and rugby teams to help drive our kids, and this was no different in friendly Seattle.  The bigger differences have been in the actual travel; much of it has been within a relatively small geographical radius, within our région Bouches-du-rhone, for both sports, and the routes are much more idyllic than any of the traffic-laden routes on the freeways near Seattle.  But, they are so idyllic that it's necessary to use a GPS or Navigator application on one's phone to find the way to the complexe sportif (sports complex: usually 2 soccer or rugby fields, some stands with locker rooms and restrooms, and sometimes even a snack shack, serving cafe and sometimes bière) in some small, sleepy Provençal village.  The roads are often pretty quiet on the weekends, but Sunday driving this is not, because the speed limit on the narrow two-lane routes départmentales (secondary highways) is a nerve-wracking 90 km/hour and there are ditches on each side.  Seattle traffic is stressful, but so is trying to listen to the Navigator narration, (which exit from the next roundabout?) while keeping one's car on the road and avoiding the sideview mirrors of the rapidly approaching little cars.

*TIMING: And, after our breathless arrival, the start of any sports' event is, like all other activities, on French time.  Here's Saku's team last weekend waiting for their coach on the fog-shrouded pitch in Meyreuil, about 20 minutes from Aix.  Game warm-up at 8h30?  Expect the coach at 8h45 or closer to 9h.  Game time at 9h30?  Expect it to start by 9h50.  Yet no one seems agitated by this.  At home, we were always watching the clock, because there was always that next activity to get to after the game.  Here, it seems the only thing most of us might be rushing back to is our next meal, and heaven knows, those are also very languid affairs.  Maybe I'll have more to say about those meals next time.  We're in the middle of school holidays, so our life is even quieter than usual, and our family has downgraded its vacation plans a bit due to work commitments.  Instead of a ski holiday, the boys and I are heading to Lyon, the city that some describe as a small Paris.  In characteristic over-programmed U.S. fashion, I've mentally planned out our days, with three museum visits, and shopping, and sightseeing, but I'm sure once we get to our first bouchon (small French bistro typical to Lyon) and I have my first sip of wine, everything will s-l-o-w down and we will experience the city in more typical and relaxed French fashion.