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

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