18 April 2012

A pied

Despite my current obsession with the French driving rules that I must master in order to get a French driver's license, I do not regularly use the one car our family owns here.  (I tell why I need that license in an earlier post, April 2012 A is for Autoecole.)   Some know that in Seattle I was a keen urban walker, walking the mile to and from elementary school with my children nearly every single day, rain or shine, usually with my black and white floral Marimekko umbrella in hand.  (Even in physically-active Seattle, some thought we were remarkably dedicated.) My spouse and I selected our Seattle neighborhood in part because of its sidewalks and the walkable proximity of grocery stores, a post office, and a pub.  In true U.S. fashion though, I used my car for my main grocery shopping, the transporting of kids to after-school activities, and my commute to work. 

In contrast, in Aix, I take care of virtually everything à pied (on foot) or en ligne (online).  European cities are generally more walkable because of how these cities' cores developed over time, and perhaps also because of different social priorities.  I appreciate that I can faire mes courses (to run my errands) on foot relatively easily here (with a little help from delivery services and friends with cars), and I am of course grateful that I can do my professional work and occasional shopping at home in front of the computer screen.  Another factor in Aix that makes errands easy is that the weather is much more conducive to walking, so there is little need for parapluies (umbrellas), although a hat and a water bottle are often necessary during the hot summer months.  Yet, for many Aixois, driving to work and to run errands, rather than walking or trying other transportation alternatives, seems as common as it is in the U.S.  Many drive themselves to work, clogging the ring road out of Aix in the morning and into town in the evenings.  As for errands, we don't have Costco, here, but the parking lots at the supermarchés (supermarkets) and warehouse stores outside of the urban center are always quite busy.  On my big walking days when I cross town and walk a bit over 4 km, trying to catch the end of one boy's sports practice at a stadium near the center, and then hoofing it south across the autoroute (freeway) to the end of the other boy's sports practice, I am in the minority as a walker.  Just a few parents may walk to the stadium (I've gotten my share of strange looks and questions even here), and I am the only parent that retrieves her son at the other sports field on foot (we walk back across the autoroute to catch a bus home).  Walking beyond the general urban core, I am quite alone on the trottoirs (sidewalks) and passages du piétons (pedestrian crosswalks), except for the many, many voitures, camionnettes, motocyclettes, cyclomoteurs, and cars zipping by (cars, vans, motorcycles, mopeds and buses).  Even the relatively few urban bicycle riders (in contrast to those in training or exercising) seem to stick pretty close to the urban core.

In the U.S. but also here, walking has largely been "engineered out of existence," as aptly noted by Tom Vanderbilt in a recent Slate Magazine article (The Crisis in American Walking, April 10, 2012).  We have created other means to get where we need to go and we use them when we can, because they require less physical effort, or they feel faster, easier and more convenient.  Some confer more social status than others too.  Like a flashback to my own childhood, nothing elicits groans more than my suggestion of a family walk on a quiet provençal Sunday afternoon; after all, why WALK when we can drive, and what if someone sees us?  Furthermore, the bus-riding son tells me that riding the bus just isn't that cool, even in Aix.  It may be that Aix doesn't have enough well-developed, attractive alternatives to cars because there aren't enough people here to popularize them.  Paris, on the other hand, is full of stylish walkers, and then there are those incredibly hip business men and women on rented vélos (bicycles), while in the center of Lyon a few weeks ago, I couldn't help gawking at the half dozen grown women zipping around elegantly on foot scooters.

As a consequence of the continued love affair or dependence on the car, traffic in Aix is significant in and around town, as are the struggles and creativity to find places to park.  These issues are typical in many old European cities, where labyrinthine, dense urban centers have tried to accommodate motorized vehicles.  In the larger cities like London and Paris, restrictions against cars in certain zones are becoming more common, to ease congestion, pollution and the wear-and-tear of historic centers.  For us here in the south, the increasing cost of gas (even diesel is at nearly 1,50 euros/liter, that's about $7.87/gallon, The Connexion, April 17, 2012), the difficulties with navigating narrow 300+ year old streets (in our case, resulting in a nice dent and missing door handle and a costly repair), and the limited traffic and parking options (to run some simple errands last week, I spent three hours, mostly circling, to find short-term parking, to drop off groceries, and to get back to our 110 euro/month parking garage), being a piéton (pedestrian) may not be hip, but it is definitely smart.  Sometimes it's even really fun, such as when pedestrians take over the main thoroughfares, as they did on Cours Mirabeau last weekend after a very joyful carnaval parade covered the street with lots and lots of paper confetti. 


The Connexion. 2012, April 17. "Sales drop as fuel prices hit record." The Connexion. http://www.connexionfrance.com/Fuel-petrol-diesel-prices-record-Doubs-13628-view-article.html

Vanderbilt, Tom.  2012, April 10. "The Crisis in American Walking." Slate Magazine. http://www.slate.com/articles/life/walking/2012/04/why_don_t_americans_walk_more_the_crisis_of_pedestrianism_.html

11 April 2012

Département 13

As with foreigners everywhere, we are often asked where we are from.  We say we are Américains or in my case, Finlandaise-Américaine, and we usually add the detail that nous venons de Washington (we come from Washington).  People here often think we mean Washington D.C., and we swiftly correct them, clarifying more specifically that we are from the WEST coast, from SEATTLE, yes, from Microsoft country (in my childhood, I remember the business reference was Boeing).  For us, it has been important that we establish our national and regional identity correctly.  In one way, this shows that we feel connected to certain places and the people within them, and we want to affirm, if just to ourselves, that this connection still exists even if we have left.  People who have not left their homes also often invoke their social connectedness to particular regions and places, to perhaps reinforce or reassert their ties, out of pride or when challenged.  French sociologist Emile Durkheim considered such social ties vitally important.  He suggested, over a century ago, that social solidarity, or that 'we-feeling' among people in a particular area, sustained communities and gave their members shared purposes and meanings.  Social solidarity is not a natural, intrinsic quality but one that is socially created, in part by the human desire to belong and to survive.  It is also something that starts at the local level, in one's village or town, where we establish connections to those with whom we interact personally and regularly, and it is only through great social, economic and political changes that we have come to a point where social connections can occur on the national level.

Revolution and the eventual creation of la République française contribute in part to the importance of national identity in France today.  We have found that many French are keen to know our nationalities (even if they are less interested in the distinctions between the two Washingtons).  To our faces, most are kind and nod knowingly when we explain where we are from.  (We've heard our share of derisive comments about being American, mostly from French middle school kids and we ignore these as much as we can).  The French also seem to assert their nationality proudly, and many want to know how we, as Americans, like France.  We are asked this almost weekly.  Many seem satisfied when we tell about our appreciations for French food and the French lifestyle.  Others agree with our frustrations with French bureaucracy.  Still others want to know more; last fall I had a conversation with a doctor who spoke in generalizations with me about what "the French" think about politics and feminism, and she wanted me to comment on what "the Americans" think.  It was very difficult for me to speak for Americans on any of the issues we discussed without carefully qualifying my remarks.  I thought it was interesting that she did not qualify whom she was speaking for, when we do know that being French does not have the same meaning for all who live here nor does it seem to include everyone, especially those who don't necessarily look or act the part.

As for regional ties among the French,  I'd known, from the little reading I'd done, that for a long time, the French citizenry was seen as consisting of those from Paris and those from the rest of France.  (The desire to begin understanding the rest of the French is what spurred me to read Graham Robb's prize-winning people's history last fall, The Discovery of France, 2007).  The rest of the French are actually a complex lot, just like the wines they produce!  The French state recognized this when it began to create the administrative geographical divisions that still persist today.  In fact, it seems like regional French identities have in part been forged or socially constructed by the state.  Today there are 27 régions and within them are a total of 101 départements.  We live in the région Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur, and within our région, there are 6 départements.  We are #13, also known as Bouches-du-Rhône, which is highlighted in red on the map above.  #13 identifies our postal code, the number appears on our license plates, and the number has popped in school and other affairs.  This past weekend we were skiing, in #73.  It was a saleswoman who explained the numbering on my spouse's souvenir shirt and the red shields with the white crosses that were displayed everywhere in the villages we visited.  These are both emblems of the alpine département Savoie, also known as #73, which lies within the region Rhône-Alpes.  It is probably true that the départements in France have some social salience to the people who live in them, especially if the numerical identifications appear over and over on the things that make up everyday life.

I suggested in my initial paragraph though that most people feel their strongest, most meaningful social connections with others in their immediate locality.  Unfortunately, I haven't been in France long enough or spoken to enough people to be able to offer insights yet on local connections.  My strongest indication that local ties matter is the response we've gotten from other French when we tell them we live in Aix-en-Provence.  More than a few times, we've been told that while Aix is a fine town, it's a little 'bourgeois'.  I've been really curious to know what the speakers mean by this, and I'm guessing I may get a better idea very soon.  As the French go the polls in the next three weeks, to elect that person who will be their President and represent them all, as French, as denizens of this région or that département, and as town dwellers and villagers, I am hoping the voting returns will show more clearly some of the other ways that the people here relate to each other and to their communities.  Perhaps I'll also learn what makes some of them think that our little town is so bourgeois.

Image of U.S.: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/3/30/Washington_in_United_States.svg/270px-Washington_in_United_States.svg.png

Image of France: https://encrypted-tbn0.google.com/images?q=tbn:ANd9GcRjZ6Kt7_6rCwbYsL1-Wrf2M_gtNWzu7wkZzVL-zGWqc7WIFwIh

Image of Aix-en-Provence: http://en.aixenprovencetourism.com/photos_provence/355-plan-centre-a-imprimer.jpg

03 April 2012

A is for Autoecole

Immersion is the best way to learn a language well, and a recent New York Times article reports on a study that shows that the brain patterns of language learners in an immersion course actually begin to mirror those of native speakers (How Immersion Helps to Learn a Language, by Sindya N. Bhanoo, April 2, 2012, The New York Times).  One can imagine that the nuances of language and meaning are perhaps more easily recognized when one experiences these in real language settings, such as our boys are in the classrooms and hallways at French public school.  Learning the subtleties of French words and phrases is  something my spouse and I are facing ourselves, as we embark on our own quasi-immersion educational experience, through French autoecole (driving school).  Because auto insurance for foreign licensed drivers in France ends after one year, we must get les permis de conduire français (French driver's licenses).  (Some U.S. states have agreements with France to exchange licenses across the board, but not Washington state.)  As new driving school students, we have been immersed in driving terms and scenarios as we read and learn about when we may depassér (to pass), rabattre (to reinsert into a lane), ralentir (to slow down), arrêter (to stop), and cedez le passage (yield).  We are also learning some other subtle nuances, in French language and culture, from this driving school experience:

1-Getting a French driver's license is expensive: 780 euros per person.  This is our school's adjusted plan (as holders of foreign licenses so we probably won't need as many practical driving lessons because we actually know how to drive...).  That's nearly 1000$.  Getting a driver's license is truly a privilege here, not a right.  And it's no wonder  there are almost as many autoecoles in Aix as coiffures (hair salons); they represent a money-making opportunity.  There are literally 5 such schools within very short walking distance of our apartment, and they are little more than storefronts with very simple furnishings.

2-Passing the French theoretical driving test is challenging and requires understanding many nuances of meaning and context.  We have to memorize Code de la Route, (the rules of the road): 224 pages of panneaux (road signs), interdictions (prohibitions), obligations (obligations), sanctions and countless details about how and where to park, how much gas we save by driving 120 km/h instead of 130 km/h (answer: up to one liter!), and where we are supposed to store the gilet (reflective safety vest) that every car must have in the event of a car breakdown (answer: in the glove compartment).  The 40 theoretical questions are based on videos of driving scenes, and there is a time limit for each question, the questions may have more than one answer, and the situations and questions are often tricky.  For example, what does the white/red sign with 90 on it means?  That I must not exceed 90 km/h, but there might be three answers because I can drive 70 km/h, 80 km/h AND 90 km/h under such a posted limit.  What does it mean if that sign is posted in a foggy scene? My answer is that I must not exceed 50 km/h, the rule for driving in foggy conditions, regardless of the posted speed (and I could drive 30 km/h or 40 km/h if those are choices also).  If the sign is blue? I should drive at least the stated speed, because a blue sign is a sign of obligation, not one of prohibition.  To pass the exam, we must score above 35.  We are NOT there yet.  We met one Franco-American student with an expired U.S. driver's licenses who told us he spent 5 weeks, up to 6 hours a day, practicing for the written exam.  For us, the language barrier is one reason for the difficulty, the nuances are another, and....see point 3 for yet another.

3-Passing both the theoretical and practical driving exams means ignoring or forgetting everything related to actual French driving.  One must not rely on one's experiences or observations, or even the suggestions of any French driver.  Because parking on the sidewalk, honking the car horn in an urban area, crossing a solid white line to stop or park, using rear fog lights in the rain, and ignoring a vehicle with flashing blue lights, are all actually NOT permitted, even though they are completely regular, common, every day automotive practices in France.  I had barely pulled out of our parking garage on Sunday determined to 'practice' driving by following the French rulebook, such as carefully using my turn signals and slowing down as appropriate, when in the space of just a few blocks, a driver pulled out behind me and drove down the one way street in the opposite direction, another one blatantly ignored a yield sign, while a third one used the incorrect lane to enter the roundabout and then cut in sharply in order to exit straight ahead.  And all around me were illegally parked cars.  The message we are getting, and which most French probably already realize is, "Do as I say [in the Code de la route], not as I do [in real French traffic]."

The rewards for completing this remarkable educational journey?  We'll be legal drivers, our licenses will last virtually forever, and we'll qualify again for auto insurance.  We will also get the dubious reward of an actual red, solid A.  Many who know me know that I've always worked really hard for solid A's.  This time the A we're working towards stands for probatoire (licensed driver on probation), and probatoires display red and white A decals on their cars and drive at reduced speeds (110 km/h instead of 130 km/h, and 80 km/h instead of 90 km/h) for three entire years before they can be considered regular drivers (and attain their full number of driving points; this is another subject for another post).  My spouse is particularly incensed by this A reward, given our nearly three decades of licensed driving in the U.S. and his impatience with slow driving.  I am just giggling over the absurdity of it all, while trying simultaneously to appreciate the linguistic benefits of being immersed in the rules about French stationnement (parking), the safety features of les tunnels (tunnels) and the ways in which des pneumatiques sous-gonflés (underinflated tires) add to my fuel consumption. 

(Image from http://gestion.v2.permisapoints.fr/templates/frontoffice/infractions/images/infractions/permis-probatoire.jpg)