26 November 2012

Allez les gars!

Just like in the American town in which I grew up and in the U.S. city where I've lived most of my adult life, sports rivalries are big here in France, at all levels.  For us, they are especially pronounced since our children play in local sports clubs and we spend each weekend listening to fans of opposing teams rallying their team's members against the foes.  The French may be a little more restrained than the American fans, but we hear plenty of yelling and sideline coaching:  Allez les gars! (Let's go guys!)  Bien joué! (Good play, or well-played!)  Tirez (Shoot!)  As for rivalries, our rugby-playing son's team has a cross-town rival club, and much was made of a former teammate 'defection' this fall.  A more intense rivalry exists between Aix's best club de foot (soccer club) and the one in the adjacent town (to which my other son has in fact defected this year, see the team photo below that appeared in Friday's La Provence, Nov. 23, 2012).

Intense local rivalries become regional ones and even national ones, such as those between teams and fans of the French professional teams, or between the French national team and say the Italians.  Here in Provence, regardless of one's local club affiliations, it's the professional football team OM, Olympique Marseille, that we are supposed to root for (this is apparently non-negotiable), and this Wednesday's French league match is a much-awaited one one of its big rivals, OL, Olympique Lyonnais.  As we see elsewhere, French fans can get a little crazy in expressing their loyalties and the rivalries.  A coach at our son's soccer club is such a rabid OM fan that he sports a big OM tattoo, a big old OM earring in one ear, and turquoise OM fanwear; he is also said to break out in song whenever the archrival team Paris SG loses its matches.  I'd wager though that when it comes to national team competitions, his local and regional rivalries are eclipsed by his support for the French national team, with its FFF rooster logo.

The us vs. them mentality is quite social.  On the one hand, it allows one to identify closely with others who share similar interests and situations. Rivalries and battles create that essential Durkheimian sense of belonging and group identity.  Interestingly, it doesn't even take a victory, to build that feeling of connection with others in the same boat.  Yesterday, our son's U-13 team tied the region's most prestigious and purportedly best team, (that would be the youth team from the OM club, mentioned above!).  Amazingly, that tie was the talk at our sons' school today, and it was the catalyst for some emotional Facebook posts on the club's page last night proclaiming a few grown men's pride in their hometown club.  Apparently, being the underdog can be just as unifying as being the ultimate victor.

On the other hand, being the underdog can pose real disadvantages too, because the relatively superficial sports rivalries usually reflect deeper inequalities and social struggles for power, privilege and prestige, between individuals, groups, towns, regions, etc.  These all have different social, economic and political endowments that others might seek or that they want to augment themselves, and so we jockey for power.  Sometimes we try to share, or compromise, but usually, the stronger, more endowed team wins, the other one loses, and if there is a tie, well, eventually that tie has to be broken, most of the time.  Here in France, we've just witnessed the messy political battle between the top candidates for the leadership of France's main opposition party (the former president Sarkozy's party) both of whom felt they had won the recent party election and neither would gracefully concede (see "Rivals class over UMP leadership ahead of talks" Nov. 25, 2012, France24).  I'm not sure who's the underdog in that rivalry, but ultimately that deadlock has to end if that party is going to remain viable.  Locally, we have the political wrangling for and against a national proposal to unify Aix more closely with Marseille in administrative affairs, to create a bigger metropolitan zone.  The mayor in Aix clearly opposes the plan, seeing it as a threat to Aix's prestige and its autonomy (see "Maryse Joissains ne veut pas de métropole, Sept. 7, 2012 France3).  She apparently authorized the banner that I saw being unfurled on the balcony at the hotel de ville (city hall) last Friday.  Others see the métropole plan as the only real way to improve the intolerable traffic in the region, the inefficiency of having so many separate administrative units in so many small towns, and the difficult security, economic and immigrant situations in Marseille.  (See a pro-metropole view here, in French.  I touched on Marseille's difficulties in an earlier post this year, see Du shit. )  In this case, the bigger, more complex, but overburdened Marseille is probably the underdog, despite the glory of its football club.  In sports, it often doesn't REALLY matter how the matches end (or so we tell the kids: "it's just a game").  Here though we can see that the outcomes of some rivalries can have much more serious consequences; sometimes it really does matter who wins and who loses.

16 November 2012

Les plats traditionnels

We are licking our chops in anticipation of a traditional Thanksgiving meal here that we will prepare à la maison (at home).  While I've got the American fixings for pumpkin pie, we'll work with French ingredients for the rest, as I'll be ordering la dinde (the turkey) next week, the bottle of bubbly aperitif came back with us from the Loire Valley, the pommes de terre (potatoes) originate in French soil, and the stuffing will be made with the ubiquitous French baguettes, stale ends of which are always found on our kitchen counter.  Most importantly though, this food-based ritual, regardless of its origins and its ingredients or even where it's actually taking place, will be enjoyed like other culinary rituals: it will be communally-enjoyed, among friends or family, and it will include renditions of les plats traditionnels (traditional dishes).  We've participated in several such rituals this autumn already, as we await our own celebration.

~In October, we enjoyed aperitifs with two Canadian families in honor of Canadian Thanksgiving.  It turns out the traditional Canadian meal isn't so different from the U.S. version, even though our friends' version is vegetarian and the dates for the thanksgiving meals are about a month apart.  What was perhaps unusual was that, by French standards, the gathering took place early, at la bonne heure, and by North American expectations , we should not have been able to have our drinks outside  (but it was a fall Provençal afternoon which means it was sunny and mild).

~A week or so later, we joined Lyonnaise friends in a French country house kitchen to enjoy a meal typical of Martinique, a French island in the Caribbean.  That meal was prepared by the visiting father of friends, who had brought several 3 liter boxes of dangerously tasty Island rhum agricole (two drinks of rum mixed with syrup or jam plus lime was clearly enough for me, judging from my headache the next morning).  The meal itself was coq (rooster), with all of its 'special' parts (yep, the 'coq' part too), slow-cooked in a jerk-type sauce, accompanied by a dish of beans, all served over rice.  Tasty! 

~The next night, I crossed off 'taste wild boar' from my bucket list.  Along with 30 other people at beautiful candelit tables, we enjoyed a very French autumn meal that started late and ended late (I missed dessert by going to bed around midnight).  We ate dark, rich sanglier (wild boar) prepared in a daube (a wine-based stew) and accompanied by pommes dauphinoise (scalloped potatoes) and sauteed mushrooms, chanterelles and pieds de mouton (a mushroom called mutton's foot).  Alas, the mushrooms were not of our own picking.  To my vast mushroom picking experience, I can now add digging for them through the snow, which is how our mushroom picking expedition ended up earlier that same day.  Fortunately, a champignonnière shop at a lower elevation village with a good supply of mushrooms saved the meal, or at least added to it, as did all the good wine, including my new 'fave', another delicious Chateauneuf du pape wine, Domaine Chante Perdrix.

~This week we tasted Algerian specialties, including samosa-type appetizers filled with seasoned ground beef, a chopped red pepper sauce on mini-toasts, followed by the tomato-based and wheat grain-thickened chorba, the soup that traditionally marks the end of Ramadan fasts. Our French-Algerian friends then served us couscous with stewed vegetables and beef and chicken, all cooked in a cocotte minute (a pressure cooker, a very popular item in French kitchens).  Because of Islamic and family traditions, we did not drink wine, but our pineapple upside down cake dessert and the wonderful hospitality were accompanied by the deliciously sweet mint tea.

 ~And finally, while it wasn't a meal, last weekend, one son and I picked olives, an autumn food-based tradition here in the South of France which was every bit as communal and international as our meals this past month, given the friendly conversations in multiple languages taking place among pickers.  We didn't taste the fresh olives (they aren't considered edible until cured or pressed), but the result of our tree climbing and shaking efforts will result in bottles of olive oil, a staple ingredient in many French dishes.

08 November 2012

Maisons et chateaux

Chateau Chenonceau on the Cher river

Our past weekend in la vallée de la Loire (Loire Valley) was one in which we caught a glimpse of the former and current lifestyles of the rich and famous.  At Chateau Chenonceau, (pictured here) we walked through the opulent bedrooms and the large kitchen and servants' dining room (think Downton Abbey), and we saw how Catherine de Medici competed with her husband's 'favorite' mistress Diane de Poitiers for the most elegant bedroom and prettiest garden and eventually, the ownership of the castle.  At Chateau du Clos Lucé, we walked through the Leonardo da Vinci's retirement lodgings and the gorgeous gardens, and at Chateaux Cheverny, we were treated to photos of the current Marquis and his young family who reside on the upper floor and who open their home year-round to the tourists who want to see how the elite live.  (This marquis apparently hunts, as the castle grounds include kennels for a pack of hounds.)

Seeing the insides of French maisons et chateaux (homes and castles) can be so revealing about a people and their society, but most of the time, the French are extremely guarded about their private homes, treating them almost like real fortresses that are NOT open to public viewing.  Many single dwelling homes in France and the yards around them are surrounded by tall iron fences or stone walls, with locked gates controlling access to driveways.  We have not noticed many neighborhoods where casual passers-by can see inhabitants watching television in their living rooms, or preparing food in their kitchens, or sprucing up their gardens.  With the locked gated entries, door-to-door soliciting is virtually impossible as is trick-or-treating (which is not a tradition here anyway), and going on a walk in Aix is often a bit frustrating for me.  I'm always a little bit of a voyeur, peeking through holes in the fences or looking to see what I can see as gates open and close.  The French also use their wooden (or electric) window shutters regularly, at night or in the heat or extreme cold, and often even during the day, which can have the effect of closing up homes and buildings to the outside world.  On our drives to castles and towns across the eastern part of the Loire Valley last weekend, the effect was rather depressing; it seemed as if all of the houses were painted the same non-descript white-ish color and on many of them, the dingy windows shutters were tightly closed.  (The shutters and homes in some towns, in the south especially, do have a little more color.)  But where were all the people in central France, in the lieu-dits (tiny localities) and villages, and what were they doing? 

Because we rented a holiday house this past weekend, a gîte as these are called, (pronounced 'jeet'), we were able to see a little bit of life from the inside of high stone walls and iron gates.  Our owners lived in the adjacent white manoir (manorhouse) which had unusually bright blue shutters, and we saw when they were out and about, leaving for the Saturday market or wherever, and we caught a glimpse of one of them working at their computerThese are the kinds of things we normally see in our community in the U.S.  If I were to walk to the store from my Seattle house, I would pass by the fronts of all of my neighbors' houses, and it would be unusual not to exchange a quick wave with a resident in her kitchen or a child in the front yard.  Not only that, in this same house I can talk on the telephone at the window in my living room and gesticulate to my neighbor across the street who can see me from her living room window as she answers my call on her phone.  And, the houses in our Seattle neighborhood are green, blue, red, taupe, yellow.  Some do have have shutters beside the windows but these are purely decorative, and most front yards are not fenced in, nor are driveways closed off.  Our cars are parked on the public street, across from our neighbors' cars and we often see each other as we come and go.   

Perhaps the differences between how the French live and how we live is related to the different valuations of privacy and security.  (Earlier I wrote about French privacy in regard to first names, see Noms et prenoms, Sept. 2012.)  The English saying about a man's house being his castle does speak to the idea that privacy and security are important values, and these seem to be valued here on the other side of the Channel as well.  Just recently, I ran into a French employee at a local frame shop whom I recognized as my eye-level neighbor.  (She and her family live in the building across a street and a courtyard from us, on the same floor as we do, and I recognized her face from having seen her at her window occasionally in the spring and summer.)  The woman and her co-worker were startled when I asked her if she lived on a certain street and then suggested we might be neighbors, that perhaps we had seen each other across the street?  Perhaps I was being too forward, invading her privacy.  On the other hand, the French do seem to focus a great deal on property crime and perhaps she felt a bit vulnerable.  The French go to great lengths to protect their things, with the barricades around private family homes, the shutters, the iron bars, and for us apartment dwellers, the ubiquitous buzzers at our building entrances.  Perhaps she was feeling protective of both her privacy and personal security.  In any case, I was relieved to discover a few weeks later that this French neighbor and I actually aren't all that different.  On a very stormy day in which torrents of rain were creating rivers out of the old town streets of Aix, both she and our family were drawn to our windows at exactly the same moment, to watch the amazing weather.  Astonishingly, she waved to us, so we waved back, and then, I pointed to the street and gestured with my hands to show how deep the water was.  She smiled and nodded, et voilà! We had ourselves a normal, friendly neighborly interaction.

What we see most days looking out our windows