25 September 2012


The two Washington towns in which I have spent most of my life are quite young.  Seattle was established in 1869, and Hoquiam, the coastal logging town in which I grew up, was incorporated in 1890.  My birthtown, Helsinki, is considerably older, having been established in 1550, and I've always loved that I originally come from an old settlement.  Perhaps that was why I was so attracted to the old town of Tallinn, Estonia, for my dissertation fieldwork.  I was there about five years after Estonia regained its independence, and I wandered the streets of the beautiful Hanseatic old town daily (it dates from the 1200s).  I lived outside the historic city center, in a residential part of town that was both old and relatively young, with centuries-old wooden buildings interpersed with Soviet-era highrises from the 1940s and 50s.  Today, parts of Tallinn look much newer, even though I have not yet witnessed its metamorphosis into a truly contemporary European capital.

Luckily for me, moving to Aix gave me another opportunity to live in a really old city, with some Roman ruins sprinkled here and there, and lots of quaint old X's bracing walls, as in the photo above.  I describe our family's move to our current location in a post from last December (Emmenagement).  It's funny to think that the quartier (quarter) in which we live is in fact called the villeneuve (new town)The villeneuve was built up from 1590 until the 1700's, as compared to la vieille ville, the 'old town', which dates back to the Roman period up until the 14th century.  This notion of new towns and old towns offers a wonderful example of how we construct different social meanings, sometimes for even the same words, depending on the time and place in which we live.  To the Aixois in 1600, our part of town was the new town, and it remains one of the younger parts of this old city, even though currently some very new construction is taking place just south of the city center.  On the other hand, if we want to talk about new towns in a more global sense, Seattle is definitely a villeneuve! 

I'm currently pre-occupied with one other villeneuve and this one is not so much socially constructed as it is creatively constructed.  I mean that it is not a real town, but it's the name of a fictional town that is the subject of a French television series called Un village français (A French Village).  One can even visit the fake town virtually on the official website.  I learned about the series from my Finnish friend here whose family first followed the show on Finnish television.  (Not a single French person that I've asked knows the series, despite the fact that it features some well-regarded French actors.)  The series imagines the experiences of the French in their small towns during the Occupation in World War II, and the first season's episodes are each followed by some short historical reminiscences of actual French citizens who lived through the Occupation.  ("They were there...." says the caption under the title in the photograph below.)  I was able to purchase the boxed dvd set of seasons 1-4, thinking that I could improve my French comprehension by following engaging story lines, and learn about some French social history at the same time.  (I've just begun the second season and have discovered that I'm going to have to do some seriously listening because the subtitles suddenly end after the first season's dvds.)

So far, I understand that the Occupation brought about some significant changes in the relationships among the people in town and in the ways in which the town operated.  As a mirror for the French war experience, the series shows how all kinds of different private interests came to the fore as a result of the Occupation.  For some French, the urge to go on as before was strong but impossible to do fully, given the restrictions placed on ordinary activities.  New rules governing social activities forced some French to leave or lose their jobs, and others to adjust their diets, their daily movements and their hopes for the future.  Other French saw opportunities not only to survive but perhaps even to prosper, by cozying up to the Germans or by dabbling in the black market, perhaps even at the expense of their fellow neighbors (a point that has often been conveniently overlooked by the French until very recently).  And then there were those who saw the openings for other kinds of clandestine activities, on behalf of the French resistance or the latent communist movement.  As the series progresses, Villeneuve is becoming a new town because of the Occupation, and I suspect that when the series is over, the town will no longer look like or feel like the one in the opening episodes.  I suppose this is true of all human settlements; they are always in flux, but sometimes external forces, or violence, or new ideas, bring about change more quickly than at other times.  In some ways, this is exactly what I was thinking about in my last post about Marseille, a real French town that seems to be on the brink of something new (see Du Shit). 

18 September 2012

Du shit

We've been smelling du shit all summer, at home and at the beach.  Attention (beware), Anglophone readers: I'm not talking about doggie do-do on the sidewalks.  Du shit is marijuana, a substance with its own distinctive smell.  (Du shit is another one of those faux amis, or false friends, where the same words mean very different things in French and English).  A neighbor seems to have an insatiable appetite for l'herbe (grass or marijuana), and luckily for that neighbor, the drug capital of Europe just happens to be down the road from our town (as well as from the beach), so a direct supply line isn't too far away.  That supply line, however, is probably one source of the violent conflict that has been taking place between rival drug gangs in Marseille all summer, resulting in nearly two dozen deaths.  (Update to my post: Click here for a NY Times article summarizing the situation, 9/19/2012.)  A new national level police commissioner has been appointed just for Marseille in an effort to get a handle on the situation, while a news magazine today has called Marseille, which is France's second most populous city, a 'lost territory', and ponders how we have arrived at this point.

I do not know Marseille well, having visited just a few times, and I have yet to feel drawn to it, despite its potent sociological appeal.  Demographically, it is an extremely diverse city, both in terms of ethnoracial identity and age.  About 20% of Marseillais are foreign-born, and they come from all over: Spain, Italy, Corsica, Armenia, Turkey, the far East, northern Africa (Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco), central Africa (Ivory Coast, Mali), southern Africa (Comorros).  We got a glimpse of this rich variety last fall at the prefecture in Marseille.  I felt very white, blonde and boring, as I watched families enter and leave the waiting room for processing work and residency permits.  I was entranced by the colorful veils, scarves, saris, caps, headdresses, bangles, beads, gold jewelry, and by the huge variety of skin tones and ethnic backgrounds (the ones I could surmise anyway).  On the other hand, I also recognized the impoverishment and subtle desperation in the demeanors of some in that room and on the steps outside the building.  In fact, Marseille will not be the promised land for all of these comers.  Because of the persistent immigrant flux, the unemployment rate is high and the city is relatively poor by the standards of other French cities.  One sees this just by looking at the city's urban core; parts are dirty, dingy, and gray, with copious graffiti adding rough swatches of color both to once-elegant apartment façades and to newer cement apartment blocks.  I have also felt, more than once, a slightly menacing ambiance along some streets, particularly those that appear virtually empty in the center and those that are filled with idle men sitting at cafes passing the time while nursing their pastis (the famous Marseille anise-infused aperitif).  When legitimate or lawful economic opportunities are few, illicit ones, like drug trades, will exist and persist (as may drug wars and other related phenomena).  Unfortunately, the social and physical environments will reflect those.

Does this mean Marseille is a city lost to drugs?  It has always been an unusual French city because of its grittiness and multiethnic character.  Perhaps the civic pressure is reaching a bubbling point right now, as Marseille is just about to become the 2013 European Capital of Culture.  It feels like there is still much to be done, with significant construction underway, creating persistent traffic problems in major parts of the city, not to mention the security issues posed by the criminal activities in a few districts.  I am sure Marseille will eventually ascend to its role as capital of culture, and perhaps it will shed its other 'capital' reputation, if for a short while.  As I have discovered, sometimes the paths to achievements here in France are those that are the most sinuous and least expected.

Speaking of such paths, I took one last Friday evening in Marseille, in a part of the city I had never seen before.  We drove into and through the urban center, then along the beach in the 8th arrondissement (district or section of a city), all the way south until the road narrowed and became bumpy and then ended.  We left our car and hiked along a rough-hewn rocky path through a calanque (rock formation) for about 100 meters, towards the very tip of the calanque, to the very tip of France in fact.  And there we found a little Marseille restaurant, hidden truly at land's end, where we ate the freshest dorade (snapper or bream) we have ever tasted, while looking down at the roiling turquoise sea just meters away and at the dramatic rocky islands in front of us.  What other 'lost' treasures does this city have for us?

10 September 2012

Noms et prenoms

What a difference a year makes!  After a steep learning curve last September, this year we have managed la rentrée (what the French call the return to school, work, and normal life after the summer holidays) quite nicely.  By ourselves, we have purchased our own school supplies at Carrefour and Geant Casino, completed the forms for school, written our own checks for school lunches and sports registrations, and arranged our French classes.  It helps that our French has improved (not greatly, but enough) and we understand better how the French do things.  Yet, as I wrote many months ago, learning the customs in a new social environment, whether it is a school, social group, or even a society, is often a remarkably humbling experience, (see Humilité), and it is also a persistent one.  After one year, the lessons continue!  Here's my latest one:

To start the school and sports year off right, I decided while sitting at the sidelines of a soccer tournament last weekend, to engage my closest and most patient French friend with compiling a list of names, of my boy's teammates and their families.  It still amazes me that last year, I managed to faire les bises (kiss cheeks) with people multiple times a week at youth sport practices and matches yet I barely learned anyone's names.  It's like these weren't important.  I never even learned the soccer coach's last name last year.  In contrast, in the U.S., we have rosters and lists with the contact information, for sports teams, classrooms, schools, clubs, employee groups.  And, when we greet each other with handshakes, at least the first time, we almost always exchange first names.  In the first week of any U.S. course that I teach face-to-face, I memorize all of my students' names, to create more direct connections between me and them and to facilitate more active student participation during the course.  (I really do!  I do not however retain the 40 names in my head beyond the quarter, as I have new names to memorize and limited cerebral capacity.)  Here in France, upon meeting someone new, I have taken to introducing myself by saying my first name while exchanging kisses.  I think though that in that side-by-side motion of les bises, rather than with the direct gaze that comes with facing someone and speaking one's name while shaking hands, the French person is not really understanding the pronunciation of my Finnish name, and I certainly can barely make out the mumbled response.  (Did he just say Laurent? Vincent? Or did I hear a different sound at the end; was that Florian? Julian? Lucien?)

So, last Saturday, my friend and I began making a soccer team list for me, and it quickly became a game for some of the other parents on the team who joined in.  The entries grew into a list of the prenoms (first names) of players, parents AND siblings, even some of whom I'd never seen at any matches or were long grown up.  It became clear that the parents didn't all know each other's names even though most of the team had been together for almost two years.  Names were being tossed around, guessed at, and then spelled to me in rapid-fire French.  At one point, a soccer dad looked a bit startled when asked by one of my helpers for his absent daughter's name.  I piped up, explaining that I was trying to learn everyone's names, and I added, with a smile, that perhaps I could greet him by name the next time I saw him.  He didn't look relieved or convinced by this, even though we have exchanged dozens of bises with each other by this point and have attended at least 2 tournaments and many trainings together.  When I decided I also needed everyone's noms (last names), I passed the notepad over to a helper so that the French names could be written down more quickly.  After we accounted for all the players, the list was done, the game was over, and I put away my notepad.

I later realized that the list wasn't actually complete because we had forgotten to list the coach and his daughters.  I also realized that no one had thought to ask the names in my family.  Did the others not care about our names?  Why was this such a novel thing, to compile a list of names?  Nadeau and Barlow in their insightful book, Sixty Million Frenchmen Can't Be Wrong: Why we love France but not the French, suggest that the French conceptions of public and private spaces, behavior, and information differ from those of North Americans and I would say, of many northern Europeans as well.  The authors relate an experience which in a North American context amounts to a fairly intimate exchange, a visit into someone's home.  In France, such a visit has different implications, and it does not automatically imply that the names of the visitors or hosts will be exchanged.  Imagine visiting someone's home without learning their name!  Nadeau and Barlow suggest that exchanging names and occupational information in the French context amounts to a very private, intimate exchange, whereas having someone over for aperos (drinks) is a public, social activity that does not require the exchange of personal information.  The same must be true of sports events; the French families spend hours and hours together, eating together, and watching the children play their hearts out together, sometimes with great emotion, but to them, we are not in a social setting, or participating in a social activity that requires us to know the names of the people around us.  Clearly there are some different understandings and perspectives of what is private and intimate information and behavior, and what is fairly public or open.

Given my bicultural upbringing, I have had lots of experience switching between cultural contexts and with changing behaviors to match those contexts.  I'm sure those experiences have helped me and my family 'go local' here in France.  We can follow the customs, but sometimes we haven't immediately understood why the customs are the way they are.  It helps to remember that people see their social worlds in different ways for all kinds of reasons.  After all, it's partly the sociologist in me that makes me need to figure out people's identities.  I want to know where they are from, what social groups they are a part of, and what they do.  Knowing people's  names helps me sort them.  I do understand why that soccer dad does not mind being nameless, or maybe even prefers it, given the social world he lives in.  My world though is highly colored by my sociological perspective and my multicultural life; in that world, I need to know who this father is!