22 May 2012


We've had a lot of lessons in humilité (humility) recently.  Mine are related to the fact that I am simultaneously a parent, a middle-aged woman, and a foreigner.  The humility that comes with parenting is certainly one that many of us understand.  In my case, as the parent of deux adolescents (two adolescents), I have these boys' challenges to authority, their encroaching height and developing bodies, their potty humor (which seems to be positively correlated with puberty), and their more elastic language learning to deal with.  I receive much eye-to-eye eye-rolling from one tall son when I "just don't understand" how important something is to a pre-teen, while I receive spontaneous French pronunciation lessons and translations from the other when I really just don't understand what that nice French lady said to me at the doctor's office. 

Then there is the humility of aging.  A woman of a certain age, at least this one anyway, really begins to see the effects of physical aging in this bright, unforgiving Provençal light.  The wrinkles are so much more visible here, on one's visage (face), as are the gray hairs (and one's kids don't fail to point all of these out).  And, try being the oldest person in the testing room at the autoecole (driving school), just old middle-aged me and the hip French high school and college kids in their ripped jeans, scarves, cute shoes and cigarettes.  Furthermore, while we may all be students and I may have many more years of experience being a student and studying for exams, my previously excellent memory is no match for the quicker, younger, brains around me, as we click our way through questions on sample épreuves théoriques générales (driving theory tests). 

My driving school experience also highlights the ways in which being a étranger (foreigner) is so very humbling.  My parents and I were foreigners to the U.S. many years ago, but I didn't have the experience of being an adult foreigner that they did, and that I do now.  There is nothing more humbling than having to learn, as an adult, different ways to do things that in another setting one has long known how to accomplish, perhaps even well.  I may be a fairly forthright, direct, confident speaker and teacher in the U.S. where my command of English is excellent, but here, I am very watchful and timide (shy), sitting silently on the seats at the driving school or standing on the periphery of the parent circles at sports events.  Likewise, I may be a driver of nearly 30 years, but that means nothing here in France where foreigners like me have to learn different traffic rules and processes, and we have to take the same tests as all the young aspiring drivers, only not in our native language(s). (For the record: a small miracle happened this morning, which I attribute partly to the good karma of the Seattle-like rain which has been falling in Aix since yesterday, to the dismay of many a tourist.  The rainy day for me was the day I somehow passed the driving theory test, in French, on my first try, even though I barely understood the facilitator.  It is not an easy exam to prepare for and I was thinking last night in my final preparations, that I am too old for this humbling experience.  Well, part one is done so I may as well move on to part two: practicing actual driving, with a French-speaking facilitator, and according to specific French protocols, like the order in which one adjust seats, mirrors, seatbelts....) 

May rain in Aix
I've spoken with others and we all agree that being a foreigner can make one feel especially stupide, and this is true for kids too.  My boys no doubt felt this way a little bit every day in the initial months of attending French school here, and one boy has had persistent feelings of inadequacy on his sports team.   (This latter is another excellent example of how not knowing how things are done creates humility.  We didn't understand how important parental patronage and French nationality were to a child's opportunities within a particular club until the very end of the season, so we didn't know 'the game' we were to play on our child's behalf.  Fortunately, we now know and we also know that there are other clubs with different ways of operating, so we have made a change for next year.)   In a way, the foreign experience makes us feel doubly humble, whether we are children or adults, because it accentuates or enlarges the learning curves that face us as we move through different life stages.  We may already be uncertain about being a middle school student or the parent of almost-teenagers or a driver(!), but being these things in a foreign country adds to our uncertainties.

Nevertheless, there is always something to be learned from lessons, especially from lessons in humility:
  1. Everyone feels stupid at one time or another.  Speaking and connecting with foreigners or anyone in new humbling situations can go a long way in making others feel less stupid, and it can help them navigate those aforementioned learning curves of their new situation or society.  I am privileged here in that I have access to people, through the parents we've met and the driving school staff, who have engaged me and helped me understand how to function in France and who have helped lessen the discomforts of not knowing.  They've extended simple human kindnesses such as speaking French slowly and patiently, or offering detailed information when requested.  Such small gestures offered to anyone in new straits can make a significant difference.
  2. Lessons in humility while painfully learned, do create a richness in our own lives that we might not have otherwise.  It's incredibly silly that my spouse and I have to pass new driving tests in France, and it's very frustrating to see one's child shunned while trying to play the sport he loves, but in the process of standing in line at the testing center or pacing on the sideline of a soccer game, our whole family is learning so much about French society and also about ourselves--what we believe in, how we want to behave towards others, and what we are capable of accomplishing.  

18 May 2012


Medicine/health care is an important social institution in all societies today.  Because societies need healthy, functioning populations in order to survive and prosper, bonne santé (good health), of one's people, and one's medical system, are imperative.  That said, how societies organize and provide health care can vary significantly even if the role or purpose of health care is more or less similar across societies.  France's system is one based on the principles of universal health care, for legal residents, with provisions for others, and the health care services come from both public and private sources.  (Click here for an English language summary of some of the details: http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/9994.php)   For our family, we are out-of-pocket users of French health care at the moment, with our private insurance, so we have access to the same services (and we've used both public and private ones), but we pay for them at the point of service.  The French system as we've experienced it isn't all glossy and cutting edge like we are accustomed to in Seattle which is known for medical and health care services, but we do feel we are getting good care in France, and we definitely feel like the price is right!

Our initial experience with the French health care system actually occurred during our family's first visit to Aix, in July 2010, when one of our then 10-year old boys was overcome by an undetermined intestinal ailment that resulted in an Emergency Room visit and subsequent pediatric ward stay of two nights.  The public hospital was pretty spartan and a bit dumpy, given our experience in the U.S.  I had to ask for soap and a hand towel in the bathroom, but a cot and sheet were provided for one parent to sleep in the same room and the nursing care was generally quite good, even with the language barrier.  I didn't notice the same vigilance with hygiene as in the U.S. or the same level of technology; nursing staff had bare feet in sandals, chipped nail polish on fingers, and the handwashing must have taken place at the nurses' station, and the equipment was basic, with no blinking lights or electronic monitors.  We had just an IV bag and of course, the television.  Allen's boss helped us when we checked in and then over the phone with the staff when we checked out, but overall, most of the staff, including the young doctors, seemed uncomfortable with their own English and our lack of French.  We could not seem to get a definitive medical diagnosis in the end, nor did we receive a bill or any written receipt or record of our stay upon checking out, (we had to return to get something in writing and to reiterate our request for an itemized bill as we knew we'd need something for U.S. insurance claims).  Several months later, a misaddressed bill arrived from the county treasury, unitemized, and payable only by automatic payment to the sum of 1, 708 euros.  Not bad for an ER visit and two nights stay.

Last week, this same son injured his poignet (wrist) during some pick-up soccer play, and we visited the doctor who had treated this boy for angine (pharyngitis) last winter, and who had given both boys the briefest of sports physicals last fall.  The médecin (doctor) is about the same age as me, and he speaks English well enough that we can comfortably communicate.  His office is on the second floor of an old, dusty building near the train station.  The access is via a narrow circular staircase (no elevator, so no wheelchairs or baby strollers), and one enters a small foyer to a reception room ringed with about 12 chairs.  There are no appointments, it's first come, first served, between 9-12 o' clock and 15h-18h (3-6 pm).  The doctor's office is a high ceilinged room overlooking the street with a large wooden desk over which we talk and exchange payment, and he has a small, relatively unfurnished adjoining examination room.  He has no staff, seemingly no electronic records or patient files (he showed me his simple handwritten ledger of daily visitors one time, when I commented on his very full waiting room).  He seems to see a lot of patients each day, and each midday he makes home visits or has rounds at the hospital nearby.  But his manner has always been quite calm, never rushed, despite the full waiting room.  As he appears to have nothing more sophisticated than a stethoscope, his role seems to be the first line of medical care, the general practitioner, only he seems much more general than our g.p. at home.  For us, he provides rubber stamps, and writes prescriptions for medications and specialists' services.  We were given a prescription for an anti-inflammatory cream and a wrap, and a radiographie (x ray).  He explained that the radiologist would send us to the polyclinic to have the wrist set if the x ray showed a break. After I paid his standard flat fee of 23 euros, his role was essentially finished.

Specialists are available all over town it appears, when one looks more closely at the metal placards on buildings.  For x ray clinics, it's up to the consumer where to go.  The office we went to near our apartment was more polished and updated than either the hospital or the doctor's office described above, even though it too was an old building.  I unfortunately didn't notice what kind of ultrasound equipment was available, if any, so I can't report if the spouse's employer's equipment was installed there, but the standard x ray equipment, was there, and the experience too was like any we've had in the U.S., except that it took place in French.  The x ray technician was business-like, the radiologist spoke rapid-fire French, but then to my surprise, he very generously re-explained everything, slowly and clearly in French.  (If everyone would just slow down like he did, I think I could finally begin to comprehend spoken French.)  He told us, no broken bone, no need to go to the polyclinic, but perhaps come for a follow-up.  This time, we shelled out 48 euros, and we went home with a set of x rays (apparently, this office does not store clients' medical records either).

In my growing medical records file at home, I will also being adding medical claim forms.  We will make the claims, against either our U.S. private insurance and our new private European insurance, to reimburse our out-of-pocket medical services as we did for the public hospital stay two years ago.  We may not decide to do so for the prescription drugs.  These are so cheap here that in some cases, our U.S. insurance copays or fees are more than what we have paid for actual medications.  The three medications  for the respiratory illness last winter (fever reducer, cough suppressant, and antibiotics) totaled 14,60 euros, so I was not too surprised to discover that the prescriptions, for the cotton wrap and anti-inflammatory ointment for the hurt wrist cost only 4,70 euros.  (I was more curious as to why a simple cotton wrap was a prescription item.)  The pharmacies themselves play an enhanced role in the medical/health care system here and they are involved in the provision of homeopathic remedies as well, something we don't see to the same extent in the U.S.  I'll surely have more to say later.   For now, I will be content if we can continue to keep both medical visits and prescription expenditures to a minimum.

07 May 2012

Une élection présidentielle

One of the guarantees of democracy is the right to convene freely.  During the past few U.S. presidential elections, we've convened with neighbors on election night, watching voting returns come in on the television and via the Internet while munching on snacks, and then celebrating or commiserating together as we listened to victory and concession speeches.  Last night, Allen and I had the good fortune to experience a very similar evening, but with French friends and much better food and wine, as we awaited the outcome of une élection présidentielle (a presidential election).  On t.v., we watched the final moments of the most recent French presidential election cycle culminate in a victory for François Hollande, and then listened to Sarkozy's concession speech, followed by the new president's victory speech as it was televised from a small town in central France.

Notably for a Socialist Party candidate, the new president was driven in a small car to his speech site.  While this choice of transportation will have to change as presidential security becomes important, it does mirror in some ways the simpler and more practical electoral process in France, as we've observed it:

  • For starters, presidents are elected every five years, and the campaign cycle itself is much shorter.  The presidential candidates must declare themselves by attaining 500 signatures from French mairies (mayors) and other elected officials, just a few months before the vote.  Le premier tour (the first round, or the primary) occurred on April 22, two weeks ago, with the final vote yesterday (May 6) between the top two candidates, because no one got a majority the first time around.  The brevity of the process is capped by the quick ascension of the new president, in just three weeks or so. 
  • The campaigning is strictly controlled, both during the primary period and up to the final election; each primary candidate had the same amount of airtime on television, and there were rules about the sizes, colors, and images on the campaign posters.  This means there was a lot less waste and visual clutter on the streets, and fewer television commercials.  Last-minute campaigning had to end on Friday, a full day before election day.  
  • One acrimonious presidential debate took place on national television in the last week, just one.  And throughout, personal details, about the candidates' families and social lives seemed largely irrelevant.  (That Hollande is unmarried and cohabits with someone is a non-issue here.)  
  • The stringent campaign rules and the quiet day before the election (no sign-waving on the streets!) is matched by a relatively quiet voting day, on a Sunday, rather than on a weekday, so very few people have to take the day off from work.  The other major difference here is that the French directly vote their president in (no electoral college like in the U.S.); that may also account for the higher turnout as each person's vote feels more directly connected to the eventual outcome.  Otherwise, the actual voting looked similar; in Aix, voting sites were located around town, at the hotel de ville (city hall), and a school, and the French voters stood in lines calmly to take their turn at the voting booth.  Just outside the door it looked like pollsters were speaking with voters as they entered or exited the bureau de vote

  • The final results are guarded until the last moments of voting; we do something similar in the U.S. where official results are not announced until the west coast has finished its voting, but we do endure hours of journalists' and experts' projections of the results.  In France, not a word was stated of the results until the clock struck 20h, (8 pm).  At that moment, the photo here shows what we saw on the television.  (I found out this morning that the news of Hollande's victory was leaked early on the Internet by a foreign press; within France though this is strictly interdict). 
Because the outcome was closer than many sondages (polls) had predicted in the past weeks, there are many happy and many dissatisfied voters around France today.  In 'bourgeoise' Aix-en-Provence, (and in other nearby towns except for Marseille and Avignon), more voters chose Sarkozy than the ultimate winner, and in the earlier round, a woman from a far Right party, Marine Le Pen, fared better here than in other parts of the country, but did not advance to the final round.  Some in France are worried that the new socialist president will exacerbate the economic problems within the EU, while others are relieved to have a leader whose platform is national unity and social inclusiveness.  I think that ultimately what the French want is what any democratic citizen wants, the protection of one's democratic rights and the rights that go with being a member of a particular society.  For the French that means that they expect Hollande to maintain a strong French presence in Europe and to protect long-valued democratic rights such as the right to convene and speak freely, among others.  There is also the matter of protecting those uniquely French privileges that include extensive holidays, such as the five such fériés (holidays) this month alone!  (May 1: Labor Day, May 8: WWII Victory Day, May 17: Ascension Day, May 27 and 28: Pentecost or Whit Sunday and Monday).  The second of these comes tomorrow just as Hollande himself needs a chance to catch his breath and to consider which national priorities will come first.  For the sake of national unity, I am quite sure that cutting holidays will not be among them.

03 May 2012

Les communications internationales

Our family has been on a little multilingual spring break road trip.  We started in Bourgogne (Burgundy) where we attended a rugby tournament and visited Dijon, and then continued to Verdun to see the increasingly faint remains of World War I trenches (as seen in photo) and villages détruits (destroyed villages).  We continued northward into Germany's Saarland, to Trier, to see a roman gate, a holy tunic and Karl Marx's home.  We made a tiny jaunt into Luxembourg to buy some cheap fuel for the car, crisscrossed back through France's Alsace-Lorraine to Germany's Schwarzwald (Black Forest) for some cake, and then returned to the south of France.

Before we left, we had numerous arrangements to make, with sports coaches, French teachers, and friends.  For many such communications, I use texting as it works well for me in terms of French language communications.  (And I think the French find it less painful to read poor French than to hear it spoken!)  I am able to express myself better in written French and I can read French, so textos (text messages) are an excellent way to communicate when I can't understand spoken French instructions or requests, or when I want to ask questions myself.  I've gotten us to sports tournaments and rendez-vous (meetings) and met up with new friends.  I'm even learning some French text language.  If "I don't know", then  je ne c pas works for je ne sais pas.  Text messaging is also very versatile for me when I am faced with multiple languages.  In the past few weeks, I've had textos simultaneously in one day, in French, from two sports coaches, a French mother, or my French teacher, in Finnish, from my new Finnish friend in Aix, and in English, from my kids, husband and a Canadian friend.  It is so marvelous to know that one can correspond and make plans relatively easily with people in multiple languages, all at the same time, with the use of texting.

To my utter dismay, my polyglot texting ability is not matched at present by verbal agility.  I was mostly completely tongue-tied on this vacation, speaking French to the German gasthaus proprietors, oui, oui, je prends un peu (yes, yes, I'll have a little) and German to the French waitstaffs, danke schön, (thank you very much), and resorting to English by default or Finnish in frustration.  Already, my boys have been cringing at my accent when I speak French, and while my German grammar is better than my spouse's, he is far more fluent in spoken German.  On this trip, none of this seemed to matter, as I truly could not verbally express myself clearly in either language.

Fortunately, written language and spoken language can also be combined with body language.  Even if the languages do not come out clearly all the time or the words aren't spelled correctly or in the right order, with gestures and hand signals, we can connect with others and communicate well enough.  Through a combination of these forms of language, we can chat with rugby team parents, find lovely German inns and a former French abbey converted into a hotel, and enjoy delicious local wines and fresh asperge or Spargel (asparagus), and glace or Eis (ice cream), depending on where we are.  On this trip, we were even able to get a car tire fixed in Germany after closing time on the evening before the holiday marking der erste Mai (May Day), thanks to the spouse's German language skills, my body language skills (imagine the pantomime: "Oh dear! What a big nail in the tire!"), and the international language of cold hard cash.

The result?  A very happy May Day spent in both Germany and France, and celebrated in (click here) traditional French fashion with a bouquet of muguet (lily-of-the-valley).