30 July 2012

Un stage multisports

My kids participated in a stage last week in Aix.  (Stage can be translated as an internship or a training camp; here, I'd say it translates best as a day camp.)  Day camp experiences are nothing new for my urban, millenial kids whose summer times are way more structured than mine ever were.  In Seattle, they would have weeks of day camps and swimming lessons and a one-week sleep-away camp on the Olympic Peninsula, alternating with 'free' weeks at home or with either set of grandparents, full of play dates and the occasional sleep-overs with friends or cousins.  Idyllic, unplanned summers are no longer the norm for many middle class U.S. children whose lives are often arranged around the pursuit of becoming well-rounded and active.  It's true that even French children have opportunities to attend stages during les vacances scolaires (school holidays).  The big difference between organized summer activities for U.S. and French children though is in the variety of camp choices that are available.  Here, I've not seen long published lists of local summer camps, and the camps that do exist seem to be largely sports-oriented. (The main stage in town is one that does offer a variety of non-sports activities and outings but it fills up each year as soon as it is open for enrollment and so I know very little about it.)  Our boys ended up at a stage multisports (multisport camp) run by a local physical education teacher, and in August, they have the opportunity to attend another similarly sports-oriented one at a local country club.  In general, I am not aware of craft, cooking, music or other non-sports camps as one finds in a city like Seattle.

Despite the apparent lack of variety in summer camp offerings, we learned something last week about the popularity of what might be considered 'alternative' sports in the U.S.  The French of course love the globally mainstream sport of football (soccer), and they are crazy about rugby, which isn't as popular in the U.S., but it is the X games genre of sports that seem to be especially popular here.  These are the sports that involve board- or bike-riding tricks and are often coupled with ample doses of alternative music and street fashions.  At the boys' stage multisports, they learned how to use ripboards (twisty skateboards), and they spent part of another day at a popular private outdoor park just adjacent to the autoroute, sliding along tyroliennes (ziplines ) over land and water.  Among their French friends, several left youth soccer behind years ago and now spend hours perfecting and filming their tricks and techniques on trottinettes (scooters) and skateboards at local skate parks.  One of our boys has even bought himself a trick scooter at a popular local skate shop so that he can learn techniques from his friends, while the other boy is contemplating the purchase of a longboard, both of which we see all over Aix.  Of course, road biking is also popular here, what with the Tour de France and the challenging country roads here in the South, but among the younger set, BMX riding is the thing.  Adjacent to the more traditional football fields and stadiums, we've seen a number of  BMX tracks.

BMX riding of course is a new category in the more traditional Olympic games that are taking place right now in London.  I don't know yet if the French will be glued to the television during the BMX competition, but in just three days of watching French coverage of les jeux olympiques (the Olympic games), we have watched more judo, fencing, table tennis and handball than we EVER did on U.S. television.  These aren't all that mainstream in the U.S. despite being somewhat more traditional sports, but they have an avid following here.  Actually, I can see why.  From judo's formal bowing, down-to-business engagement, and brutal fighting, to the interesting contrasts between fencing's ancient artistry and elegant footwork and the electronic bells and whistles of the equipment, and the amazing physical reflexes required of table tennis and handball, we are spellbound by the French and other athletes participating in these Olympic categories.  (And the French commentators covering these sports are every bit as excited as those reporting on basketball or swimming.)  It makes sense now why some French kids bring ping-pong paddles to school to play table tennis in the schoolyard during the breaks between classes, and why the men's handball team in Aix gets the broad press coverage it does.  The pursuit of excellence in sport is fairly universal today, (given how even the smallest countries send athletes to the Olympic games), but the sports we pursue or follow may differ significantly, by society, and even by generation.  I'm sure one can guess which viewers in my household are anticipating the trampoline and BMX competitions and which ones are waiting for gymnastics and track and field.  As for national differences, we'll see how interested the French are in these sports as we follow the television coverage here this week, and next week, we'll track the Austrians' television coverage of the Olympic games from our vacation perch in the mountains of Tyrol.  Maybe we'll come across some ziplines, or tyroliennes, there too.

17 July 2012

Les spectacles

Spectacle is one of those French words that has a slightly different connotation when interpreted by an English-speaker.  Spectacle is pronounced spek-tahk in French, and it refers simply to shows or performances; my French friend described her young daughters' end-of-the-year dance recitals as spectacles, but we've heard the word used to refer to all kinds of shows, such as a fireworks displays, musical performances, and it was even used to refer to the opening ceremony at the soccer tournament I mentioned in my last post, Une semaine en Espagne.  For me, and I think for many Anglophones, the word, especially as it is pronounced in French, signifies something really grand and amazing, along the lines of the English word 'spectacular' (used as a noun, e.g. a circus spectacular).  As a result of this interpretation, we've had some pretty high expectations of spectacles.  Yet, as often happens when one tries to translate words and ideas from one language to another, sometimes something is lost in translation.  Some of the spectacles we've seen in the past week have left us scratching our heads a bit.

As a treat for us and our Seattle visitors this past week, I searched for tickets to some spectacle that would allow us to enjoy a musical or arts performance outdoors on a warm Provençal evening (but that would not set us back 200+ euros per ticket, as that was all that was available for Aix's world-renowned Festival international d'art lyrique opera festival that was happening at the same time).  What I found was a show that was described as including modern dance, classical music, and mirrors and illusions, and that was free to children under age 12.  It sounded magical, engaging, and family-friendly so I even invited another family to join our group.  We expected to sit on the grass on our own blankets at a lovely city park, in front of a big stage, listening to loud and lively music and watching lots of dancing and pretty costumes, lights, and perhaps magic tricks with mirrors. Instead, we found ourselves in one corner of the park near a small stage, with not enough folding chairs for the crowd, and a hostess who spoke to the audience in French without any voice amplification.  Most of us could not hear a thing she said (and some of us would not have understood anyway), and she refused to repeat herself to the back of the audience when someone asked her.  Then, four simply-dressed performers came out and presented a dramatic and stark modern dance interpretation of Shakespeare-influenced stories, with a spare musical accompaniment provided by a sole cellist (and with the ambient noise of traffic racing by on the other side of the stone fence).  The mirrors were little foil-covered decorations fluttering from the trees towards the back of the stage, and the magic and illusions were all metaphorical.  A French mother left partway through with her young children in tow, obviously not finding the performance to be quite as billed, and our own children and we squirmed, we stifled giggles, and somehow, we endured what I would call a spectacle that was very French, and a bit weird.  We did appreciate the skill and artistry of the dancers and the symbolism of their modern dance, but I'm not sure we quite understood the illusions that were supposed to reveal truths, or the copious applause and bowing afterwards.  The rest of the audience seemed very impressed, and the performance clearly met or surpassed their expectations.

Two evenings later, La Fête Nationale (French national day, or Bastille Day as Anglophones call it) was upon us.  While the customary fireworks display in town was not going to happen (due to too many wind-related cancellations over the years), the Aixois were going to celebrate the day with an evening lighting spectacle at the Rotonde fountain called Les lumières du 14 juillet, and a bal (street dance) along the main boulevard.  We arrived at 10 pm to see a 10-15 minute LED light display on the fountain set to recordings of popular classical music selections.  The lights were pretty and the show was apparently the first of its kind in France (see the Aix mayor's bimonthly publication "aixendialogue" no. 55, Juillet/Aout 2012, p. 10), but it did not quite live up to its billing.  To us, the lights were not as spectacular as real fireworks or even as light shows we've seen elsewhere.  The show was rather anti-climactic actually, as it was then repeated several times so that everyone could see. 

We then turned to make our way toward the stage set up at le haut du cours (the top of the boulevard) where we were surprised by an entertaining and well-rehearsed song and dance show performed by a talented group of saxophone and horn players, a keyboardist, a guitarist, a troupe of professional dancers, and four singers.  The crowd was so unexpectedly thick that we couldn't dance or even see the stage except from the side.  We were most amazed by the musical selections that were being performed on this night of French national day: the program was almost entirely made up of American show tunes, from Westside Story, the Wizard of Oz, New York, New York, Hair and others!  (Songs by Abba were the sole exception that I noticed.)  The show was joyful and fun, and I could hear the French all around me singing along with the performers to the songs from Grease.  But it was, again, another spectacle that turned out to be not at all what we expected, this time because the musical choices did not seem congruent with a celebration of French nationhood.  Actually, the more I think about it, the more I realize that surprise is probably a key element of the word spectacle, the idea that what one is about to see is going to surprise in some way.  As we've discovered, sometimes the surprises are positive, sometimes not.  In many ways, this sums up our nearly year long stay in France so far; like the spectacles of the past week, we continue to be surprised by what we are experiencing here.

13 July 2012

Une semaine en Espagne

One of the occupational hazards of being a sociologist, especially a sociologist who has studied tourism from a sociological perspective (for a dissertation on post-Soviet change in the Baltics), is that I have a hard time just being a tourist.  Instead, I see manufactured sights, events, and experiences all around me, existing in suspended, somewhat artificial states designed primarily for touristic consumption.  There are few genuine, 'real' experiences while one is a tourist; most of what we see and do while on vacation has been crafted for our viewing, entertainment or consumption as tourists.  I recently had the excellent opportunity to view the touristic enterprise sociologically as our family joined over a dozen Seattle families on a soccer tournament tour package that brought us to Spain's northeast coastal region and to Barcelona. 

We stayed for a week on the tourist strip in Malgrat de Mar on the Costa Brava where low-budget all-inclusive hotels were interpersed with cheap food joints advertising British food and Dutch food, tourist nightclubs, and dozens of tourist shops with made-in-China kitsch and knock-off sports jerseys.  The beach was parallel to us, and seemed to be enjoyed mostly by the tourists staying in the hotels. This tourist location is designed to bring thousands of visitors in and out, and the tourism industry has crafted the 'inexpensive beach holiday on the Spanish Mediterranean,' complete with mass-produced food, cheap shopping opportunities, and what might best be called cheesy evening musical entertainment on the hotel pool decks or at the discos on the strip. (Our hotel featured Simon Grant! From England! ...and singing cheerleaders from the Czech Republic.)  We tried to venture out beyond the strip, to try to get a more authentic experience of local life, local food and the local language, Catalan.  After all, we were in Spain, or more specifically Catalonia, but so far, it was not the Spain that most Spaniards know. 

The soccer tournament that we had come for took place a short distance inland, in the middle of agricultural fields.  There, our son's team played against French, Italian, Polish and U.S. teams.  The international nature of the competition was obviously the selling point of the tournament, and this was heavily promoted at the opening ceremony, where we experienced a raucous pep rally fashioned on an Olympic opening ceremony, complete with the parade of flags, the playing of national anthems of each country represented, and even the lighting of a torch inside the gymnasium!  As it turned out, the achievement of the spirit of international friendship and understanding through athletic competition was relatively limited.  My son reported speaking briefly to some French players, and the team had some interesting international exchanges with an inconsistent Spanish referee and an Italian team with suspiciously large boys.  We also saw a fight after one match between the obviously over-engaged parents of two other teams, while our boys exchanged most of their jerseys and trinkets with another U.S.team. (Go Cleveland!)  When it comes down to it, you can manufacture an international experience by creating an international tournament and an international opening ceremony, but you can't force moments of true international understanding.  Those have to come about organically.

The tour package included optional events in Barcelona, one of which was a visit to the FC Barcelona stadium, Camp Nou, home of the reigning World Cup Football champions.  In the sports museum and the stadium tour, we could take photos of ourselves standing alongside photos of former and current players (almost as if meeting them in person, non?) and photos in front of the field or montages of the field (almost as if standing on the hallowed grounds of the football team, n'est-ce pas?).  We were also given ample opportunity to shop for 'official' jerseys and other gear at the retail shop, so that we could outfit ourselves just like the football champs themselves.  The 'Camp Nou experience' was yet another example of a socially constructed touristic experience.

Thinking about tourism in this way, as a series of manufactured experiences, does tend to deflate what others might think of as amazing and novel sights and events.  Sociologically-speaking though, made-for-tourist locales, sports tourism events, and museums all reflect attempts by one group of people (those who comprise the various actors in the tourism industry) to create products, views, and events for the consumption of other people (those people that buy the touristic product).  Tourism is a simply another socially constructed endeavor. 

Does this mean that I don't enjoy myself on vacations?  No, I do enjoy going on holiday, but when I do, my family generally tries to stay off the well-beaten track of hotels and tourist strips.  We opt instead for rental condos or pensions where we might actually be in a typical residential area, with local grocery stores, or where we might interact with local hosts more personally.  I don't want to see people's dirty laundry necessarily, but I actually like to see how the locals live, while I am vacationing.  (We stayed in a rental flat in a residential quarter in Barcelona on our last night, and I got my look at some Spanish laundry in the photo here.)  I do appreciate views of stunning beach sunsets and amazing buildings (to the left of my Spanish laundry view, just beyond the frame of the photo, was an outstanding view of the unfinished Sagrada Familia church).  I also enjoy museum visits, to sports fields and to historical sights, and I enjoy taking my children (and even their soccer friends) on swimming excursions at the beach or in the pool.  Ultimately though I still find such views and experiences much more interesting when I am surrounded by locals and can witness a little the ways they live their lives.