24 June 2012


You might think that in a place with nearly endless sunshine and light, summer's arrival would be rather unremarkable.  In fact, the rituals associated with the start of l'estival (summer) are quite pronounced here, in the South of France.  It seems we spent all weekend welcoming the Provençal sun in its new season.

First, to celebrate the summer solstice, we enjoyed la fête de la musique (the celebration of music) on Thursday, June 21.  The tradition of free music in the streets until the wee hours of the morning is actually relatively young, 30 years old, but it is widespread throughout France.  Aix's fête (party) is well-known in Provence because there are so many stages set up throughout the many squares, so the music-lover has much to choose from, from the French pop, rock, blues, classical, reggae-style, orchestral, and so on.  Aix also has more reliable weather (some fêtes were canceled last Thursday due to bad weather in some more northerly French cities).  There were thousands of people in Aix on Thursday, more than we've ever seen, and of all ages, walking around listening to all kinds of music, drinking wine or beer, and occasionally the harder stuff.  Everyone warned us that the crowd gets a little crazy after 9 pm when the alcohol kicks in among the younger set and that there would be bottles and trash everywhere the next morning.  We didn't encounter anything too wild when we turned in after 11 pm, although the pulsating bass beat from the rock venue was audible until after 2 am.  Surprisingly, we found the stages largely disassembled and stacked for removal and the streets cleaned when we and the rest of Aix groggily wandered out to school and work the next morning.

On Saturday, we headed à la plage (to the beach) to La Couronne to celebrate a family birthday, and for many around us, it was no doubt the first visit to the beach for the summer.  Going to the beach is a true rite of summer here, and after some trial runs last summer and twice this spring (one visit to introduce the Med to my sister's family and another with the football team families), we are getting the drill down, especially for the late afternoon/dinner time beach outing.  The picnics at any time can be quite elaborate (salads and main courses and of course wine) as is the equipment (special beach blanket, cutlery, maybe even a table, or a sun shade of some sort).

Unexpectedly, I also got my midsummer bonfire on Saturday night after our beach visit, as Aix closed its main street again, this time for Les feux de la St. Jean (St. John's fire).  A bonfire in honor of St. John is traditional in Finland on midsummer also, a tradition which I have enjoyed many times, and it appears to be a re-created Provencal tradition as well.  The effect was a little different here though, as the bonfire was built just adjacent to the famous Rotonde fountain, on a city street, rather than on a northern lake, and the French pompiers (firefighters) were all ready with their fire hoses uncoiled and fire uniforms on in case the bonfire got out of control and spread to the dry trees and other vegetation nearby.  Not only that, the chaleur (heat) from the bonfire was doubly intense because the air itself was already so warm, and the Provençal dancers and musicians in their costumes carefully danced as far away from the heat as they could.

And finally, we marked the end of school and the end of sports' seasons this weekend.  Because of exam schedules, our boys effectively finished school on Friday, and both boys' sports clubs had grand fêtes (big club-wide parties) today.  The football club party that I attended for over 6 hours today (nothing happens quickly here) involved les apéros (appetizers and cocktails), a barbecue with sausages, chicken, tabouli, pasta salad, capped by the big event, the concours de boules (boules competition).  Boules is a very popular summer game here,  although I was told that hard-core players play year round.  It resembles the Italian bocce ball game and lawn bowling.  Nearly every family had brought a sacoche boules (a boules bag containing 3 boules each, an assortment pictured here), and there were enough players of all ages that I counted 14 games taking place simultaneously on the gravel soccer pitch with teams of 2 playing against each other, all in the intense sunlight.  This game is taken quite seriously; the points were carefully tallied between each set, with careful protocols governing who threw when, and afterwards, everyone shook hands.

I never thought welcoming summer could be so demanding or that it would be quite so important here.  But, l'été (another word for summer) signifies an extended time of leisure for the French and it does make sense that such a season would be welcomed with great fanfare and rituals, even in places where sunshine is a regular occurrence.  We are still trying to get into the French and Provençal seasonal rhythms ourselves, but the rituals we participated in this past weekend, the imminent arrival of summer guests, and a week's vacation in July should help us move right along.

18 June 2012

Je ne sais quoi

During a break in my two-hour driving lessons this week, my driving instructor lit up a cigarette comme d'habitude (as usual) and asked me about sociology.  I explained to her in my limited French that one thing we do is look for patterns in social interactions and that many social patterns are in fact universal across societies.  She was skeptical and suggested that in France, the social classes are quite distinctive and separate from each other.  I suggested to her that all societies have social classes or social distinctions of some type, but that it is mostly in the details that the differences exist between societies.  This is perhaps the main point of most of my blog posts over the past 11 months.  Social or cultural differences exist, but by and large, culture itself is the same force in France as it is in the U.S. or anywhere else.

For example, this past weekend, we spent an entire day with French families, first at an all-day soccer tournament in another French riviera town, St. Cyr-sur-Mer and then at a barbecue in the evening among friends closer to Aix.  The language we spoke all day was not our own, but the interactions, the conversation topics, the way we spent our time were all very familiar.  We have found a new football club for next year with similar esprit d'équipe (team spirit) and inclusiveness as we had in Seattle.  The families all support each other, traveling, sitting and picnicking together at the tournaments we've attended.  Over the course of the past Saturday, we shared chairs, coffee, snacks, we cared for the coach's young daughters, and we even celebrated the end of the saison (season), with a team visit to the beach to cool off in the Med.  Later in the evening, our family attended a barbecue at my husband's colleague's home among friends we have met through him and his wife.  Like in Seattle, we shared stories, jokes, and observations over delicious food and good wine; the bonus was that we actually could follow some of the conversations better and participate more actively.

Both social events thus were very similar to our experiences at home, but in the cultural details they were different.  First, there is that way that the French have, to take things so easily, that je ne sais quoi (this means literally, 'I don't know what', and we use it to signify an undescribable quality).  The endless waiting at soccer tournaments is nothing new to us, but as we got into the afternoon, still under the unrelentless southern sun with some of us sitting on the bare ground, and with the lack of any posted information about the next matches or if we'd qualified for the remaining rounds, my family was beginning to get antsy.  Yet no one else was sighing, or rolling their eyes, and the kids, young and old, were amazingly patient over the long hours, entertaining themselves with our son's i-pod or playing different kinds of games with a soccer ball.  As we've noticed at many other tournaments, the French families seem to rarely obsess about time or the lack of information, good parking options or plentiful bathroom facilities.  They just shrug and patiently hang out.  I've seen this same je ne sais quoi at the grocery store when a growing line of shoppers stands expressionlessly while the little old lady at the front counts out her coins and slowly packs her grocery sack.  Even the cashier sits patiently.  Such nonchalance also extends to social evenings, where arrival times are never expected to be precise, we can bring something to share or nothing, and the meals begin and end late.  It seems our family is always the first to leave these evenings, this time departing the barbecue 'early', at midnight, just after eating dessert.  

I have a theory that the quality of taking things easily is related to cigarette smoking. Unlike in the U.S. where we encounter very few cigarette smokers in our social circles, there are many, many adult smokers here (and unfortunately young ones too), spread across all social classes.  I figure that almost half of the football parents smoke as does the coach (and he is not the only coach we know who smokes regularly), and on our other son's rugby team, I'd say half of the mothers smoke, and among our French friends outside of sports, perhaps one-third smoke.  My driving instructor smokes, and all along our street, rug merchants, tattoo parlor owners, hair stylists, and restaurant staff all stand outside for short smoke breaks many times a day.  Cigarette smoking is not looked down upon here; it is a cultural norm, and the act of smoking itself does force one to slow down.  Yet, because it's so common, I have begun to wonder if the effects of the nicotine in fact help foster the relaxed attitudes that the French have about schedules, parking, and waiting?  Because I've never been a smoker, I can't say for sure, but might the apparent cultural distinction be related to a physiological effect resulting from nicotine?  I say this, because I happen to know that despite the apparent casualness towards planning, the French families are just like our family friends in Seattle in that they spend time and energy preparing and organizing.  They prepare lovely meals for guests and have endless bottles of wine, they put together amazing salads and snacks for tournaments, they pack their cars with portable picnic equipment and parasols and even bathing suits for possible beach outings.  This is all a lot of work.  Maybe the smoking helps lower the stress of remembering the details?  Whatever it is, we are not planning to adopt the smoking habit ourselves, but I think we are beginning to learn to take things quite a bit more easily here.  That's a good thing, especially now, when the summer heat makes everything slow down anyway.

07 June 2012

Les blogs

I know where the expatriate ladies do lunch in Aix.  Last week, my Canadian friend and I scored a table sans reservation (without a reservation) at a lovely restaurant adjacent to a fountain, and it became clear by the end of the meal that this was the place to have lunch, particularly for English-speaking expatriate women.  Is it because the wine is pink and chilled, and the waiters speak English? (Coincidentally, I posted a photo of this chilled wine in my previous post Rouge or rosé, and I describe a meal at this same restaurant last November on the night of the new wine release, see Beaujolais Nouveau.)  Or, it is because expatriates tend to connect with each other wherever they are in the world, and sometimes they just coincidentally converge on the same restaurants at the same time?

While I've not become heavily involved with the expatriate organizations in Aix, there are many of them.  I'm most familiar with the English-speaking organizations which connect primarily the large numbers of North Americans, Brits, and Down-Unders who are here.  These groups create a sense of community and serve as important resources among people undergoing similar experiences.  This is not unlike older immigrant communities that have served to integrate, support and even assimilate their members in new countries over the centuries.  In the West, I'm thinking of the Chinatowns and little Cubas or other international districts in larger cities.  In these communities, ethnicity or national origin and language have been the typical ties that have bound people together to share resources and information so that they can successfully forge new lives in their new homes.  The differences with the contemporary expatriate communities is that in these latter communities the members seem to be connected most closely by their social class backgrounds.  Most of the expatriates seem to be relatively well-educated, of middle to upper middle class, and their occupational roles have largely transferred laterally here.  These are people who have been able to find or create professional positions for themselves on par with what they left behind, and who are not starting at the bottom of the the social ladder like earlier and less privileged immigrants have often had to.  Even those who do not speak French well do fine here, because in a sense, their educational and social statuses trump their linguistic deficiencies; they know how to get information and learn quickly how to work the system, so they are able to hit the ground running. 

One particularly important tool for these expatriate communities is the use of online resources.  Certainly, such resources and online access are available to everyone these days, but many expats, because of their educational and social backgrounds, are particularly adept at using online tools to connect and seek information.  They may also have more time and access with which to log in most effectively.  Here and now, expatriates are emailing, twittering, texting, and blogging, as they connect to other expats like themselves, and these much more immediate ways of communicating have largely replaced the letters and phone calls that immigrants of the past had to really on.  (That's a wall of old mailboxes photographed in a passageway in Marseille several months ago.)  I am particularly aware of the expatriate blogging communities in France, but they exist all over the world.  While there are broader ones centered on Paris and in other large areas, I'm noticing in Provence and in other regions of France, smaller, tighter blogging communities of primarily Western, middle to upper middle class women sharing their experiences here, asking questions, telling some of the same kinds of stories (of the endless rosé, the escapades of the French villagers, the familiar frustrations with the French ways, etc.), and posting stunning photographs of quintessential French scenes.  Some of these women appear to have formed online friendships and avidly follow or link to each other's blogs.  (My little sociology blog here on which I'm recounting our experiences from a sociological perspective doesn't even register on these amazing networks of French-themed blogs.)

The concentration of women bloggers, especially American and English-speaking women married to French husbands, is notable, but they aren't alone; there are all kinds of other expat blogs, of Finnish women (and no doubt Spanish and Italian and...) living in France (is it the water, or the French men?), of Irish and Dutch expats farming organically or restoring houses in France, of Christians evangelizing the secular French, and so on.  This suggests to me that expatriates, even those who are well-educated and economically-privileged, have the same needs to connect socially with each other that many other earlier or less economically stable immigrants have.  The Internet facilitates these connections, by giving opportunities via les blogs (the blogs) to share and link and relate virtually.  Yet, sometimes virtual connections may not be enough, and we want face-to-face contact with someone who speaks our language.  Then, we rely on the French to facilitate our social connections, by doing what they do particularly well--providing us with good dining opportunities and delicious food and wine, at lunch or anytime.  With these we share our expatriate stories and experiences and renew our spirits for yet another day.  Santé! (Cheers!)

01 June 2012

Rouge ou rosé?

My home state of Washington has just changed how it distributes alcohol for public sale.  As of June 1, 2012, hard spirits can be sold privately right alongside beer and wine, rather than by state-controlled liquor stores.  (The transition brought about a little shortage this past weekend, see A Taste of Prohibition as Liquor Stores go Private by Kirk Johnson, The New York Times, May 26, 2012).  Most U.S. states already allow for the private sale of alcohol but I have lived in places for most of my life where the state has controlled alcohol sales and access to some extent.  (For example, besides Washington, there were state-monopolies of sales of spirits, wine and most beer, in Finland and in Alberta, Canada.)  Such strict control over sales has in a sense made state employees the ultimate arbiters of taste, as Johnson notes in the article above; "....their decisions on what to stock dictating what people could order in bars or buy in the stores."  Laws can influence our behaviors certainly, but they can also reflect or even influence us to think in certain ways about the subjects in question.  Some might argue that attitudes towards alcohol in the U.S. are in fact relatively negative because of the greater state control over access.

In France, (like in most U.S. states now), governmental control over the sale of alcohol is much looser.  Beer, wine and spirits can all be purchased at our local grocery store at Monoprix, so long as the purchases are made before 21h30 (9:30 pm).  (I understand that there is a 10pm rule in some cities like Nice and Lyon, so I gather that the sale hours are by cities or other administrative units throughout France.)  The weaker state control over the sale and purchasing of alcohol in France is matched by relatively more relaxed social rules and attitudes towards alcohol consumption.  Children can sit alongside their parents in bars here, which greatly delights our footballer who can finally go to a local pub with his father to watch televised football games, and wine is a common lunchtime beverage, even during the work week (see it chilling here, in the photo on the left, in a lovely fountain adjacent to a restaurant in Aix).  It's certainly not one habitude (custom) I've adopted, but at midi (noon) when office work grinds to a halt and many shops close, if I'm dining out for lunch, I am always asked if I'll be having wine with my déjeuner (lunch).  I can even get wine at our family's favorite take-out kebab place, or at McDonalds!  On the weekends, the enjoyment of wine at lunch is even more pronounced (the choices for beer are surprisingly limited and tend to swing towards the lighter versions).  At the rugby regionals in Avignon a few weeks ago, parents walked around offering wine during our son's team pique-nique (picnic), and even the coaches had some despite an afternoon of matches still ahead.  This past weekend at a soccer tournament, in Antibes along the French riviera, I mistakenly thought there were pitchers of  juice on the table at our pre-paid group luncheon and poured some for my son, first from the pitcher with the dark juice, and then upon realizing my mistake, from the pitcher with the pale pink juice.   Both pitchers contained juice alright, but it was the fermented kind, meant for the the coaches and parents.  The inexpensive tournament meals were nothing to write home about, as they were cheap fare meant to feed hundreds of hungry adolescent soccer players, but each meal was three courses and included rouge ou rosé (red or rose wine) for the adults, and water for the children.  (French children typically drink water with their meals, not milk.)

 While I didn't expect to be drinking wine during the middle of an event organized at a youth tournament, or to see coaches doing so, I guess I shouldn't have been surprised by it because the teachers at our boys' public middle school also may have wine at lunch, in the same cantine (cafeteria) as the kids.  And, the adult chaperones at the school field trip lunch I participated in last fall all had wine as a matter of course.  The wine drinking is all very normal; my spouse suggests that it's because drinking wine is not considered a vice here as it sometimes is in the U.S.  So long as alcohol is enjoyed in moderation, no one bats an eye.  But, as anyone knows, it sometimes hard to stop after just one glass or one bottle, and even one glass can impair one's judgment and concentration; one wonders how Peter Mayle made it home from the long wine-filled Provençal lunches that he describes in A Year in Provence, or who does the driving for those connoisseurs enjoying themselves at the many wine bars in Aix (lucky for us, we can walk home).  Alcohol is in fact the main cause of traffic fatalities in France according to the 2012 Code de la Route (the official French driving rules 2012).

When it comes to driving and alcohol use, or public safety, states do step in, regardless of the prevailing social attitudes towards alcohol or the degree of economic control over alcohol.  As elsewhere, French police can stop drivers, test them for alcohol use, and sanction them if their alcohol levels exceed the accepted limits (these limits are in fact lower in France than in Washington state and many other places: the limit is 0.5 g/l blood alcohol content).  This relies on the threat of sanctions though as a way to control alcohol use, which isn't always the most effective way to ensure that alcohol and driving don't mix.  Perhaps the French state recognizes this, because in just one month, on July 1, 2012, a new alcohol-related law goes into effect here, requiring that all private cars have ethylomètres (breathalyzer kits).  In France, the state is mandating that drivers have equipment in their cars that will give them greater access to information about their own alcohol levels and may hopefully encourage more personal responsibility for behavior.  In contrast, the Washington state law opens up greater economic and social access to alcohol, giving individuals more freedom to buy and make choices.  Both laws touch on alcohol, in different ways, but together they show us that ultimately, social forces external to individuals remain important influences on how we behave and what we think.