11 December 2013

The big (and) easy

I discovered this enormous coffee mug in a U.S. hotel room this week.

My post's title has nothing to do with New Orleans (for which The Big Easy is a frequent nickname). Instead, big (and) easy is the most apt characterization I can come up with right now, for my family's impressions of U.S. life after 2 1/2 French years.  Life is BIG and life is EASY here.  U.S streets, freeway lanes, grocery store aisles, ovens, refrigerators, even the toilet paper rolls seem very big.  Driving and riding is easy; I don't stop at toll booths (the new ones in WA state automatically take a picture and deduct my toll) nor is the car slowing and speeding up with the constant shifting at the countless traffic roundabouts on French roads.  I now drive along wide American allées in an extremely comfortable and automatic shift German sedan (in a model redesigned for the U.S. market, yes, to be bigger and wider).  I can steer with one hand, and if I want to make a phone call, I simply say CALL HOME to the steering wheel which connect to the phone in my purse.  My children's first impressions have been less about the big and easy, but more about how easy-friendly everyone seems.  School administrative staff and sports coaches welcomed them with practically open arms, kids they don't even think they know are waving to them from the streets, and grocery clerks chitchat with us and already know we've returned from France. On the other hand, I'm having a hard time getting used to no bises (cheek kisses), particularly from my kids' friends.  In France, I was ALWAYS greeted with two cheek kisses by the boys' friends (not to mention all of their sports' teammates and the teammates' parents), but now I'm not sure I'd get much eye contact with some if I wasn't so insistent on hugging the kids I haven't seen in two years.

Right now, my family has the opportunity to view our society from an almost outsider's perspective. I try to introduce a similar perspective to my students, particularly those who have not had the experience of visiting or living in another society.  It's one way to begin recognizing the ways in which social context affects people's behaviors, beliefs and attitudes.  Like in France, where we discovered the cultural penchant for languid meal times and parties, we learned a lot about French attitudes towards the use of time.  In the U.S. we are seeing lots of bigness and ease and that colors how the people in this society think and behave. Seeing the ways in which context influences society also shows us that no society is perfect and no way of living is the best way.  For example, those leisurely French meals, in restaurants especially, were often very expensive ones with painfully slow and inattentive service.  In the U.S. where we've been in the car a lot in the short time we've been here (it's the first time in my teenagers' lives that they are being driven to school daily), we are noticing that we are using our bodies much less than we had to in France.  I have hardly walked anywhere and definitely not laden with bags.  Baggers/clerks or I wheel my grocery bags out and lift them into my car's trunk and then I drive them home and carry them just a few meters from the driveway to the house.  There has been none of the complicated and physically-demanding routine of dropping grocery bags off on an old, old street, to the ground floor of an old, old apartment building and then circling around to get on the one-way ring road to my tiny parking space into which I had to do some precision car handling before schlepping bags up three flights of stairs and then fitting everything into a narrow refrigerator.  Now, I have to actually create opportunities to get daily exercise instead of getting them as part of my daily routine. One son also recognized that he was slipping into the American all day snacking habit, with all those chips and crackers and other manufactured 'foods' that come in much bigger and more convenient packages than in France.  Luckily for us because of our experience abroad, we can choose from several different behavioral patterns and customs that might better suit us or that we like, even if they don't quite fit the social context in which we now live.  We did this in France after many months of baguettes and croissants, by adding protein to our breakfasts, U.S. style, while here we can try countering the big and easy U.S. tendency to eat all the time with the French pattern of just a single small goûter (a light snack around 16:00 or 17:00, after school) and an entrée (a small appetizer) followed by a late dinner.  And there is that nightly glass of wine....but come to think of it, I enjoyed that even before I went to France.

06 December 2013


The tributes to Nelson Mandela and his lifelong fight for social equality offer a good opportunity to speak briefly about race and racism as I have observed it in the months up to my recent departure from France.   This fall, accusations of racist comments made by and about government officials and politicians have been widely reported in the French press (see "Racisme en France: Un écran de fumée de PS, selon Copé". Nov. 19, 2013, Le Monde) and coincidentally, in Italy as well ("Italian politician compares black minister..." Aug. 26, 2013, The Guardian).  Our personal experiences suggest that these are just the proverbial tip of the iceberg.  We have heard many such comments from the mouths of French residents of all backgrounds in our nearly 2 1/2 years in France.  My children speak of rampant racist talk at their French public school from teachers and students alike, directed particularly towards French of Muslim or African backgrounds, while we certainly heard our share of ethnocentric comments about Americans, often derogatory, sometimes complimentary.  (In some circles, our foreign presence seemed to render social status.)   While not expressly racist, homophobic comments too were not uncommon, especially on the sports' fields.

From our U.S. West Coast perspective, where overt comments reflecting racism, ethnocentrism and homophobia are generally unacceptable even though these -isms and phobias continue to manifest themselves in racist, ethnocentrist and homophobic practices, the French expressions shocked us every time.  Those coming from politicians seemed outrageous and inexcusable, yet it's hard to know how to interpret the racist talk, especially in a country where race is officially ignored and its use in government records and census-taking is prohibited.  It's not like the South Africa of Mandela's youth and young adulthood where the racist talk was clearly coupled with official racist practices that kept the minority whites in power.  In regards to France, one might ask, is this all just a bunch of big talk (and to what ends), or do the French walk their racist talk, promoting the privilege of those who have the right background and skin color?  Officially, there is no racism, not in France, not in the U.S. for that matter either, but we can look at who is represented at the top of our most powerful institutions to see that minority populations (by race, but also by ethnicity, national origin, religious affiliation) are not represented in numbers consistent with their representation in national populations; in France we would expect to see more African and Muslim representation while in the U.S. it is African Americans, Hispanics, and Native Americans who are particularly underrepresented.  (Interestingly, in both France and Italy, it is the singular presence of female black government ministers which seems to have upset the old social order and triggered the recent racist comments.)  Looking at the numbers at the top is only one way to see evidence of racism though; as my sociology students learn, institutional racism can be subtly built into social structures.  Here it helps to consider the opportunity structures in societies because it is through these that we see representation at the top.  What are the opportunities for access, to good schools, for example, or to social networks (that is, to people with connections)?  What are the implications for good health outcomes (and thus better outcomes on other indicators) for certain communities that perhaps live in unsafe, unsanitary, and crowded conditions?  And who lives in these communities?  Many months ago, I wrote about the ways in which doors close, for women and for immigrants. (See Une porte fermée, March 2013.)  Race too opens and closes doors, even in societies where race officially doesn't even exist. Unfortunately, when the doors do open, the few who manage to get access to seats of power and privilege among the traditional officeholders are still not well-protected from racist treatment and remarks.  Thus, Mandela's quest for racial equality, in his own country and elsewhere, continues.

11 November 2013

Les entrepreneurs

My ados (short for adolescents in French) and their homies are big into skating and longboarding.  Up to a dozen classmates meet in town for skate days, trying out tricks at the local skate park or seeking out new surfaces and skate-able nooks and crannies around town (and trying to avoid getting yelled at in the process by passers-by).  The hallway outside our apartment's door is often a parking lot for the many different kinds of boards, or 'decks', when the skaters need a break.  Skating seems to be a great way for young teenagers to be athletic, social, and inventive.  Thus, it was with mild interest that I caught an article in the New York Times about a skateboarding Finnish carpenter who invented a business niche for himself, selling handmade boards made out of new combinations of materials (Foster, Nick. Nov. 3, 2013. "Taking a Local Approach to the Global Sport of Skateboarding, The New York Times ).  While his creativity and craftmanship are inspirational, I was really taken by the brief mention about the entrepreneurial spirit that has become popular in Finland, making it possible for someone like this carpenter to start a business with a global reach.

The entrepreneurial spirit is something that I see as very American, even if the word comes from old Europe, from France.  Entrepreneurship, as we understand it in the U.S.--the idea that one can start a company with an innovative idea and weather the risks, hopefully with a solid business plan and generous investors, and then propel that into a successful business, locally and perhaps even globally--has been slow to establish itself in Europe.  This feels particularly so in France, where about one-quarter of the French are employed by the state or local governments and where the start-up culture is stymied by complex administrative regulations and sometimes punishing taxation.  I've read elsewhere that French culture just lacks that creative and independent spirit associated with entrepreneurship.  I don't know about that.  The French are definitely creative, and there are all kinds of small businesses here, especially those associated with agriculture and food (think of the many small family-owned wineries, the outdoor food markets in every town).  However, it appears to be true that the growth in the numbers of auto-entrepreneurs in other sectors has only come about very recently.  This may be a Europe-wide trend, given what seems to be happening in Finland as well.  Certainly, the persistently high unemployment in France has likely pushed some to get creative and seek their economic livelihoods by starting small-scale businesses. On our street we have new and old ones, the Persian rug repair shop, the tattoo parlor, the Szechuan Chinese restaurant, and the secondhand clothing store, but it is amazing how many small retail businesses and restaurants, have come and gone in the short two and half years we have been here.  Entrepreneurial efforts based on digital and manufacturing technologies can also be found here, with many such businesses concentrated in an office park area southwest of Aix.  I can't say how many of those are thriving and which ones are surviving, but it is one such start-up that brought my family to France in the first place.  That the office park area itself continues to be expanding and the traffic has gotten heavier, prompting more road construction, suggests some business successes there, or new ideas for new companies. We know that among the EU countries, France has the highest rate of entrepreneurial development right now (Tozzi, John. Aug. 16, 2013. "Europe's Hotbed of Entrepreneurship? France" Bloomberg Business Week). That, along with a new school specializing in entrepreneurship (Mitchell, Adam. Aug. 27, 2013. "France to launch school to teach entrepreneurial skills." France24) indicate a certain momentum.  On the other hand, capital and spending are tight all over Europe, so it might be difficult to launch a true entrepreneurial revolution right now in France, or elsewhere.  It's a bit like attempting a bigspin or another trick on a skateboard; the momentum and the conditions must be just right if the skater hopes to land on his feet with his board and body intact.

04 November 2013

L'énergie nucléaire

In just about two weeks, the impressive holiday lights will be illuminated as they are each year on the main boulevard in Aix en Provence (see Le Shopping Dec. 2011 for a photo of these lights from two years ago). The French seem to really like night-time lighting; Paris' Hotel de Ville comes to mind, and well-lit Lyon has a special fête des lumières (festival of lights) in early December.  The energy costs must be pretty significant for these lighting displays especially during the winter heating season when energy loads are already heavy.  I haven't been here long enough to note any significant grumbling about the prodigious use of energy in this way, but it may be that French value the visual pleasure more than they worry about the cost.  Electricity in France is on the inexpensive side and most of it is generated through l'énergie nucléaire (nuclear energy); France is even able to export electricity abroad because of the relatively low cost of generating it (the nuclear energy infrastructure has been in place for decades, see the map and article here, "Nuclear power in France" by the World Nuclear Association, updated Sept. 2013).

So, for the past few years the electricity used by my family to power our various laptops and charge our electronic devices has been supplied mostly by nuclear energy.  It's not that nuclear energy isn't common in the U.S., (the U.S. is the largest producer of nuclear power, see"Nuclear power in the USA," by the World Nuclear Association, updated Oct. 2013), but most of the electricity produced for our use in Washington state comes from other sources, for better or for worse (see "Washington Electricity Profile 2010" by U.S. Energy Information Administration).  However, this isn't a post about the merits and costs of energy sources (I may be the child of a retired public utility employee, an electrical engineer no less, but I am not really able to evaluate the pros and cons of energy very knowledgeably).  Where nuclear energy comes up for me this week is in my observations about the sociological implications of energy production, especially in relation to social power.

My first observation comes from a disturbing article in Paris Match about how uninformed the residents in the area around Fukushima, Japan, have been about the dangers posed by the radiation leaks resulting from damaged nuclear reactors after the tsunami in 2011 ("Avoir 20 ans à Fukushima" by Alissa Descotes Toyosaki, Paris Match, no. 3363 du 30 Octobre au 6 Novembre 2013).   Amid continued elevated readings of radioactivity, widespread evacuations are actively discouraged (except in limited zones) and the officially acceptable levels of radioactive contamination have been raised then lowered.  The government has focused public attention on other aspects of public safety, such as on the regular testing of schoolchildren for radioactivity (but not publicly providing the results) and the non-contaminated food being brought from southern Japan, and on the promotion of economic redevelopment in the affected area.  The state is maintaining the impression that everything is under control, while a French engineer and founder of the independent nuclear research agency Criirad suggests that one should really be talking about widespread evacuations given the contamination of the soil and the elevated readings throughout the area. Shifting the focus of the public by controlling the information they receive or don't receive shows the power that social institutions and organizations may have and may abuse in their efforts to maintain social order, especially in unstable situations as represented here.  People's perceptions of their safety are being manipulated in ways that may potentially harm them and prevent them from taking action, such as leaving.

A second example is the story of four employees of a French nuclear energy company (the world's largest, mostly government-owned) who escaped a captivity but of a different sort.  They had been captured while employed at a uranium mine owned by AREVA in Niger and held hostage for 3 years by a faction of Islamic extremists.  Here, the pursuit of nuclear energy is related to social power on several levels.  First, there is the presence of multinational corporations doing business in less developed areas, potentially taking advantage of cheaper resources of material and labor to make greater profits but creating resentment among locals or others who are not benefiting from such an arrangement. Underlying that is the more fundamental civilizational conflict between the so-called Christian or even godless West, and Islam.  And then there is the story itself, the details of which are still carefully being guarded, by the French government, or alternatively, spun by the French media. Did the French government pay a ransom even though it has denied it?  What is the nature of a hostage debriefing?  Did a rightist politician really imply the four bearded hostages may have been brainwashed to follow an Islamic extremism like a character on the U.S. television show Homeland?  Even 'official' sources about nuclear energy, such as those that I cited in the previous paragraphs must be considered carefully, as much for the information and the sources that are being presented as for what is not being told.  Whose interests are being represented and promoted?

01 November 2013

Provence, 2013

While not as macabre as the gory scenes in the horror movie my sons watched with their friends last night in honor of Halloween, my local boucherie (butcher shop) is featuring brains, hearts, kidneys, necks, and intestines right now.  All parts of the lamb are available, including cervelle d'agneau (lamb's brain), coeur d'agneau (heart of lamb), rognons d'agneau (kidneys), as are pale legs of veal and filet mignon porc (what we call pork tenderloin in the U.S.).  The clerk at the butcher explained to me that it is butchering time. Some of the foods associated with this time are regional specialties from here in the South, such as pieds paquets (lamb's legs and tripe).  And not only this, it is also hunting season in France (last year at this time I first tasted wild boar, see Les plats traditionnels, Nov. 2012).  Sciolino of The New York Times Paris bureau describes the culinary excitement in Paris that comes with the annual start of this wild game season (see "Turning the Hunt into a Trip to the Market," The New York Times, Oct. 28, 2013).

At the Boucherie du Palais, Oct. 2013
Because of my family's sojourn in France where food and the eating of it are considered quintessential to the French way of life, food has been a topic more than once on my blog (see À table, May 2013, Où est le boeuf? February 2013, La cuisine fusion January 2013)  However, I haven't fully explained that there is a sociological specialty that considers how food and eating are intertwined with our social experiences, institutions, and structures. Food and its consumption is highly sociological because food has meaning not only on the personal level, but socially and culturally too.  What we eat, how we produce the food and process it for consumption, and how we eat it are all closely tied to who we are as individual and social beings and what we represent as societies.  The connections between society and food happen to be especially evident in France, with its tight seasonal and regional following of food and wine traditions, as represented by the autumnal dining focus on organ meats and wild game described above, and the myriad specialties associated with the different regions in France.  This week, I discovered in Marseille another specialty, this one associated with the Mediterranean part of France, a pan bagnat.   It's an excellent version of a tuna sandwich that comes from Nice, and it typically features bread moistened with olive oil, and olives, anchovies, and capers.  (Here's a recipe from the New York Times, "Pan Bagnat" by Melissa Clark, June 12, 2013.)

If you can avert your eyes from the outstanding view, the sandwich on the left tray is a pan bagnat
As we know, the French food culture has had foodies from elsewhere gushing and writing about it for decades.  Yet, France is not alone, nor is its culture frozen in place.  All societies have intimate connections to food, and they all have their food moments, when new processes, ideas and even new practices come about.  Just as societies evolve while retaining traditional elements, so do their foods and the rituals associated with them.  I've just picked up Luke Barr's Provence, 1970: M.F.K. Fisher, Julia Child, James Beard and the Reinvention of American Taste where he writes about a seminal moment in the evolution of the U.S. food culture, and in a more contemporary vein, I've casually been following the popular New York Times' food writer Mark Bittman's growing emphasis of vegetarian and vegan recipes over the past 2 1/2 years.  As it turns out, my family's French food moment, let's call it Provence, 2013, is ending soon, as we are returning to the U.S.  Bittersweet as that may be, it doesn't mark an end to my sociological observations of daily life. It just means that now I will see for myself if a vegetable-based food revolution is taking place in the U.S., and how that may be reflected in social terms.

19 October 2013

En famille

A beautiful gate and doorway in Aix's Villeneuve quarter
Weekends are family time in France.  People tend to spend their time en famille (together with family at home), or at a second family home or with relatives.  Some go into town together like in Aix, where we see many families in town on Saturdays; the grocery stores and marchés fill up with them, and once the holiday season starts, parking is very, very difficult on Saturdays.  (This year, the season may be starting sooner than later as the city workers were stringing the holiday lights on the plane trees along cours Mirabeau already this week.)  Sundays are another story.  Then, most towns and villages are quiet and almost lifeless, with shop windows shuttered and restaurants open sporadically.  For those of us without family here, or for tourists, there is not much to do on a Sunday.  Our family frequently has a championnat football game to attend on Sunday morning (this is what the French football federation seasonal games are called), and we appreciate the chance to have a slow morning, but Sunday afternoons are really empty, except for the cinemas which are open.  I take a lot of walks and pictures on Sundays, but not of people because the streets are so quiet.  The photos here were taken on recent Sundays.  My guys watch a lot of tv or spend time on the Internet.

Sundays are protected by French law, for le repos dominical (Sunday rest).  In secular times, this day off work has been reinterpreted to mean a day to spend en famille, resting and relaxing.  So most shops are closed, by law.  Year-round, a few exceptions are made for special commercial or touristic zones: a large shopping area between Aix and Marseille is open during the day on Sundays, and in Aix, a number of grocers are open until midday while a shopping street has a few shops open for a few hours in the afternoon outside of the holiday season.  These openings are in part justified by the needs of tourists and visitors to have access to some commercial services on otherwise deserted Sundays.  (The rules during the holidays are a little looser.)  For now, other businesses are trying to get in on the Sunday opening hours, such as home improvement stores, the owners of which argue that even the ordinary French would like broader access to shops on Sundays, perhaps to bricoler (do repairs or household maintenance work) a little bit on a Sunday afternoon.  That is certainly how we often spend our Sundays in the U.S., running to the hardware store for supplies so we can putter around the house.  So far though, such stores in France have not been successful in getting the right to be open on Sundays. (see "No late-night shopping please, we're French," by Leela Jacinto, France 24, 3 Oct. 2013.)

Nevertheless, this is a perennial discussion in France, about which shops should be allowed to be open and for how long on the weekends, and it seems that eventually, one will see more stores open on Sundays, not just for the tourists and expatriates, but for ordinary French families too.  For those with dual working parents, having broader access to grocery stores and hardware stores would seem to be beneficial.  It took me nearly a half year in France before I was able to figure out how to replenish our larder sufficiently and efficiently on Saturday so that we would have enough food through Monday morning (and I still don't understand how French parents do it).  As I mentioned above, on Saturdays, the grocery stores and even my beloved marché down the street are crowded, so crowded that I often want to avoid them altogether. (Wednesdays are another bad day, particularly for grocery shopping, with grade school kids home from school).  The local shopping area that is open on Sundays, that I mention above, is an even greater nightmare on Sunday, with traffic jams, crowds at the restaurants, and long lines at check-out. Clearly, there is a demand for Sunday opening hours among the French, and with the current unemployment rates, there are surely workers and students eager to fill the ranks of weekend sales and grocery clerks.

A graffiti filled stairwell on the east side of Aix

11 October 2013

Le respect

Because I haven't attended French schools myself and parents are not typically invited to be on school grounds during the school day, there are many everyday classroom protocols that I only know about through my children.  For example, when middle school students enter a classroom, they must stand by their desks and wait until the teacher tells them to sit down.  Likewise, if an administrator such as the principal enters the classroom, even unexpectedly, all of the students must instantly scramble onto their feet to stand beside their desks in a sign of respect for him or her.  And, when raising their hand in response to a teacher's question, students raise their index finger, as if gently pointing up to the ceiling (no frantic U.S. style hand waving here!).

These are markers of le respect that are specific to a culture.  Curiously though, they imply strong deference to authority, in a society where many other social conventions seem to be intended to create social exchanges on a more equal footing.  I've noted earlier how the French offer greetings and farewells in stores, and this is in part I think to create a setting of mutual respect between the seller and the consumer for the potential economic exchange that may take place.  Once, when I was so focused on making sure I got my order right in French at the fanciest bakery in town, I forgot to say bonjour.  The bakery clerk repeated his bonjour to me three times, waiting for me to return it before he would help me with my order.  And there is what I sometimes think of as the kiss-fest that occurs whenever we go to football practice or a game.  I easily faire les bises with at least 20 people, parents, coaches, players, siblings of players, grandparents of players, etc.  It doesn't matter what the person's social or coaching rank is, we make these exchanges as a way to imply a kind of respect for each other as persons, where we acknowledge each other's humanity for just a moment even if we go on to sit or chat with someone else.  Finally, there are the opportunities for the French public to respectfully disagree with their political and economic leaders, by striking and bringing the country to a standstill, if for a moment.  This week the air traffic controllers and local train line staffs took their turn in the South of France.  (I also wrote about the strikes of last October in Les manifestations, Oct. 2012.)

Unfortunately, in some social arenas, authority figures do sometimes use their positions to demand respect from their followers but don't always offer considération (respect) in return.  We see this in politics often, even in democratic societies.  For example, we have the government shut-down in the U.S. brought about by politically powerful people who can't seem to make compromises for the good of everyone (striking is not a privilege for the government, but for its people!), and in France, we have the amazingly sexist behavior of some French MPs (members of parliament) towards their female colleagues ("France's sexist National Assembly", France24blogs, 10/10/2013), and the unfortunate comments by a presidential cabinet member in regards to the Roma population in France (Roms: le Mrap va déposer plainte contre Valls devant le CJR, La Provence, 11 Oct. 2013).  In the educational setting, the rules about respect seem to vary a bit more widely.  In U.S. schools, students are expected to act politely to their teachers and administrators, but standing up in the presence of teachers or shaking their hands is not required, not anymore anyway.  Teachers and administrators themselves must abide carefully by rules governing appropriate personal or physical contact and are expected to be mutually respectful.  In French public schools, the model seems to be be much more authoritarian and the flow of respect is largely from the students towards their teachers.  I hear a lot about verbal berating of students--students are often told what they are doing wrong and very little of what they are doing well--and this week at my sons' school, a teacher reportedly hit a student violently for misbehaving.  Yet, the school year began with the national announcement of a new secular code of conduct for all French students ("School year begins in France with string of reforms," France 24, 4 Sept. 2013).  Codes of conduct are pretty common in U.S. educational institutions, and a few months ago, I reiterated a feminist's call for a broad social code of conduct in everyday life (see La politesse March 2013). Yet, I gather from the cartoon below from a page in my French daily calendar that the question of mutual respect is still a bit of a joke at French schools.  Maybe the new code of conduct should address everyone at school, students and adults alike?

In the Ethics class, on Politeness, a student says to the teacher,
"One stands up when the students enter the classroom!"

30 September 2013

Cobain et Cézanne

Last week, a flurry of news stories reported the real estate listing of a childhood home of Kurt Cobain, the singer of Nirvana (see "Kurt Cobain's Childhood Home...." Sept. 25, 2013, The Guardian.).  He grew up in the town adjacent to my childhood hometown, and I recognized the house for sale as one like many other working class homes in the area, small and modest.  The asking price however significantly exceeds the property and building value, so some people are obviously attaching more value to this little house because someone lived there who later became famous.  This is another excellent reflection of how we construct and re-construct the social meaning of things, places and people (for other examples, see De l'eau Jan. 2012, or Les âmes des vivants et des morts Oct. 2012).  The passage of time especially influences how we come to understand and re-imagine certain people's contributions and even the places they passed through.

It's a little like this in Aix en Provence, where native son Paul Cézanne was long unappreciated for his art, and his family didn't really fit in as they were seen as interlopers in old Aix society.  Cézanne himself was known as a difficult person so that may also have contributed to the lack of enthusiasm for him or his art. Even the early director of the local art museum refused to acquire any of Cézanne's oeuvres for its collections. Today though, Cézanne's image has been significantly rehabilitated.  He is often portrayed as the godfather among the artists who came to the south of France or who were inspired by his use of color and landscape themes (see my post Un été en Provence, August 2013 ).  His studio, artworks, the sites where he painted, his family's estate, all are cherished parts of this town and renowned tourist attractions. Plaques on walls tell where Cézanne was born, where he went to school, where he died, we know where he was baptised, we can see the signage from his father's hat shop, and his statue on the Rotonde is a good meeting spot.  Cézanne fans can even follow his footsteps through town guided by golden plaques embedded in the sidewalks and farther afield, one can walk on trails to his favorite painting spots.

The plaques on the sidewalks go right past the building in which my family has lived for nearly two years. For many months after moving here, I wondered what exactly the tourists were gazing at on our relatively plain and modest building.  I figured they were misreading their guidebooks or maps as there are two former private mansions with ornately carved doors and elaborate window trims just to the west of us, and the famous French revolutionary Mirabeau's mother-in-law's mansion with its grand gate is situated across the street at the next corner in the other direction.  It turns out that we are living in a former residence of the Cézanne family, a detail that is very briefly mentioned on some tourist office information, but not on any signs on the building or street.  Even our flat's owner did not know the historical provenance of the building. Apparently, Cézanne's mother owned the building from 1878 and lived here briefly and then gave it to her daughter Rose as part of her dowry in her marriage to a local lawyer, Maxime Conil.  The Conils had four children while living in this private residence, so it is very possible that Oncle Paul himself passed some time in the house.  Now the mansion has been carved up into multiple apartments and there is no clear evidence that a great artist may have visited or even that a successful Aixois family raised its children here, just like Cobain's childhood home has very few traces of him.  Yet, for those of us with broad imaginations, reconstructing what might have happened in a home where someone famous passed through is fun, (it's what museums do for us sometimes too).  That the famous person may not have been well-understood or appreciated in his time does not preclude us from imagining that he, on some level, was just like us: he probably looked out these same tall windows in this Aixois mansion, or through the front window of that drafty little Aberdeen house.  As a sociologist, this is often enough for me, to imagine the common experiences among people of different times and places.  For others, the excitement lies in the further possibility that maybe, by association, some of the creative genius of past inhabitants might rub off on them. After all, where did Cézanne and Cobain get their artistic inspiration if not from what they saw when they looked out those windows--that luminous Provençal light for one, and the gray Pacific NW drizzle for the other?

24 September 2013

Les fumeurs

Last week a friend and I went to a contemporary art exhibit which was being presented to the public by the commissioned artist.  The art was creative, a little inexplicable, and verging on violent, while the artist herself was a beautiful and unusually tall French woman, probably of Algerian background.  She was wearing a patterned pantsuit that few would be able to carry off as successfully as she did, and she seemed fairly poised while speaking about each work, even though she admitted to being nervous at one point.  She certainly didn't miss a beat when my friend and I asked her a few questions in English after her presentation.

A few minutes after the presentation, as my friend and I seated ourselves along a garden wall to enjoy the complimentary wine and snacks offered by the Friends of the Museum, we caught a glimpse of the artist lighting up a cigarette.  Both of us had a similar and instantaneous reaction, as if surprised and then disappointed by the discovery of the artist smoking.  I am never quite sure why the smoking seems initially so shocking or disappointing, especially in this case, where it was a French artist, no less.  Also, I do have a few friends who smoke, and I certainly am not disappointed or shocked by them, nor is smoking something I'm interested in judging people for.  I don't care why people smoke; it's their choice.  (Okay, maybe I don't love it when young children are heavily exposed to cigarette smoke or when people litter their cigarette butts in public spaces.)  Maybe the surprised reactions are rooted in trying to understand the choice of les fumeurs (the smokers)?  I tried to think about this earlier, wondering if smoking might be related to the more relaxed demeanor the French present on the outside; maybe it's a calming device (see Je ne sais quoi, June 2012.)  Certainly in the U.S., the choice to smoke is presented as a bad one, so maybe the surprise comes from wondering why someone would then make a 'bad' choice.  But, smoking isn't all about sophistication and clever ways to suppress one's appetite in France either; the cigarette packets say unequivocally in big letters, Fumer tue (smoking kills) and e-cigarettes are quite popular right now in France among adults trying to quit conventional cigarette smoking (see "E-cigarettes as effective as patches to stop smoking" France24 News, 8 Sept. 2013).  Yet, the French still don't seem to bat an eye when someone in their midst, artist or not, suddenly pulls out a cigarette pack and lights up.  What it really must come down to then is simply a question of social norms.

Candy cigarettes
Those of us who still find ourselves surprised by les fumeurs in France are in fact reacting to our own normative expectations.  Smoking is simply not as normative in the U.S. as it is France (or even probably in England), and this is true as well when we look at the age, gender or educational levels of smokers in both societies. Here's what I know: both French men and women smoke more than their American counterparts--about 1/3 of French men smoked in 2007 to 21% of U.S. men in 2011, and 21% of French women to 16.5% of U.S. women  (see International Smoking Statistics France, web version 2011, by Forey et al., and "Adult smoking in the U.S. " CDC reports 2011)  Smoking also seems to begin earlier in France, even though in both countries, the heaviest smokers seem to be in the 20-44 years age groups.  (Is it glorified by candy cigarettes such as those bought by my kids and their friends one day last year?)  Smoking also has similar associations with educational level in both the U.S. and in France; it is negatively associated with educational level.  This means that the highest rates of smokers are found among the less educated, and vice versa.  One-third of French adults with less than a baccalauréat or bac (h.s. diploma equivalent) and about as many U.S. adults with less than a high school diploma smoke (30-34% for French with no diploma or less than bac, and 34.6% of U.S. equivalents).  But the differences in ratios begin to be especially pronounced when we look at the rates of smokers with high school diplomas and up.  Again, cigarette use declines as educational level increases in both countries, but the percentages begin to diverge, significantly, and this is probably the telling difference.  In France, 29.7% of bac holders smoke, compared to just 23.6% of U.S. high school diploma holders, while for college degree holders, 22% of  French bac +3/4 smoke and just 9% of U.S. undergraduate degree holders smoke.  Finally, in the most educated category, bac +5, 19% of these French smoke, but only 5% of American post-graduate degree holders do. (See CDC report above, and for French results, see Premiers résultats du baromètre santé 2010 Evolutions récentes du tabagism en France, Beck et al. 2010).  (I would have to do a similar survey of the data to see where England fits.)

Thus, my reaction to smoking in France is likely a result of spending my early adulthood years in the U.S. where my social circle, as it is associated with my income level, residential location, educational level, and occupational status, etc., was overwhelmingly non-smoking.  Perhaps 1 or 2 in 20 of my friends, acquaintances and family members might be smokers (if I apply the CDC estimates of 5-9%, for the rate of undergrad degree and post-grad degree holders who smoke), but I am hard-pressed to count that many. (There will be regional variation in the U.S., as the CDC report shows that Washington state is a relatively low smoking state, and it's a very good guess that health-conscious Seattle's rate is also quite low).  In contrast, had I been in France from ages 25 to my mid-40s, and holding the social factors above constant, that is, not changing any features of my social status, 1 in 5 of the people in my social circle would have been smokers (using the estimated 19% of bac +5 that smoke to the 22% of bac +3/4).  Smoking is simply much more normative here, even by educational level, and it is much less so in the U.S.  Normative expectations are informed by our experiences with social norms over time.  I've been in France a relatively short time, and so my expectations about smoking and when and where I will encounter smokers are still heavily influenced by my experiences elsewhere.  In that respect, my surprise each time is not at all that surprising.

10 September 2013

Les feuilles mortes

The season of les feuilles mortes (dead leaves, or autumn leaves) is suddenly upon us, even in Provence where as recently as this past Saturday, we were swimming in the Med and attending some football 'friendlies' along the still hot French Riviera.  By the next day though, I noticed that leaves were falling and floating, slowly, but inevitably, to the ground.

A similar theme, of inevitability and floating leaves, or rather, dollar bills, appeared in a blog post by a Seattle Times writer last week (see Guzman "Are wallets on their way out?" The Seattle Times, Sept. 7, 2013).  The post was about how cash, and the wallets in which we carry it, are both becoming less necessary, maybe even obsolete, as we rely more and more on credit cards, automatic payments, and our smartphones, rather than hard currency.  I haven't been in the U.S. in over two years so I am not sure about the demise of U.S. bucks. Certainly here in France, online bill paying, barcodes, and the bancaire (debit card with a chip)  that I carry means I can easily shop in most large stores, buy gas, order a train ticket online or at an automatic machine, and run through an autoroute toll booth much more quickly than I could with cash.  (Sometimes, the automated payment systems seem less than efficient, as I pointed out last August in Les files d'attente.)  L'espèces (cash) though is still used widely in France, especially monnaie (change).  After all, the single euro unit is a coin, not a paper bill.  Preparing for that, I had invested in a new wallet with a large coin compartment before coming here.  The wallet was a good investment; it carries the requisite personal identification and the copious change that I go through very quickly, particularly with our near daily baguette purchases (80 to 95 centîmes each, so that's a euro coin each time) and my biweekly or sometimes daily produce market purchases which range from 3-12 euros each time.  I also use change at some French highway toll booths where special cash baskets accept payments of tolls of less than a few euros. You just throw the coins in! Interestingly and archaically, I have a chequier (checkbook) here too, as the French still use them.  (Are they the last ones in Europe to do so?!)  I still have to write checks to the boys' school, for lunch fees, and for sports' fees, and I wrote two tax payments to the government, by check, which were reimbursed by check as well.  (Our other French bills are paid online, like we do in the U.S.)  Paper money is still necessary here also; a blogger friend recently posted about on-the-spot cash fines throughout the EU for some traffic infractions (see Speeding in Spain on Aixcentric.com, 9 Sept. 2013).  It's always a good idea to have some cash on hand for those speeding and other emergencies.  (This is true in the U.S. too: I think about the time my family had just arrived from Europe after a vacation and was stranded at a horrible run-down airport hotel in New York around midnight.  I somehow managed to convince a passing shuttle driver to take us away from there to a better lodging, and thankfully we had some cash to pay him, even though, embarrassingly, it was not in U.S. currency.)

I suggest that hard currency will continue to be important despite the prognostications.  For one, it remains the means by which we purchase, sell, and exchange goods and services with many people, such as the market vendors I visit each week in Aix en Provence.  And, besides its obvious instrumental value, currency is also a social artifact, one that is closely tied to a people's values and identities. Societies spend time (and money!) designing currency that reflects their social values and origins.  (We can see this in the old coin collections of national and historical museums as well.)  For example, Americans continue to proclaim their Godly trust in and on their money, while the face of the long-living Queen Elizabeth graces the many different currencies of her current and former dominions.  Even in Europe where the European monetary union has submerged numerous national currencies into a shared regional one, the member countries reflect their national identities by taking turns designing the backs of euro coins (above, starting clockwise from the top left, 2 and 1 euro coins designed by France, the Netherlands, Italy, Germany and Spain).  For many of the members, a kind of nostalgia seems to persist for their old currencies which keeps alive some aspects of social identity.  For example, in France, prices are often still listed in francs and euros and the names of even older currencies like sous (from the time of Charlemagne) are used in casual speech to refer to money or cash.  These currencies may have gone the way of les feuilles mortes, but they remain important symbols of French identity and daily life.

And on that nostalgic note, here's a youtube clip of Serge Gainsbourg's lovely, melancholic song Le chanson de Prévert inspired by Jacques Prévert's poem about those fallen leaves of autumn.

03 September 2013

Les chemins

One thing that can make me anxious in less than five minutes in the South of France is to get an address to someone's home that begins "Chemin de la...."   I usually think of a chemin as a country road, as a route leading to a farm or something.  For example, I took a chemin today with a friend to pick up her produce box (look how beautiful these are right now with the new grapes and peppers and tomatoes), and for once, I got just what I expected. Yet, I can't even count anymore how many times I've gone off confidently to visit a new acquaintance or take my kids to a birthday party in our car only to find myself essentially still within city limits, turning off the route departementale or nationale and suddenly bouncing along on a pot-holed, gravelly, ever-narrow, what-I-would-call logging road (I grew up in a logging town in the Pacific NW so I know what these are), wondering if I made a wrong turn and if I will have room to let an oncoming car by me.  Often, my navigator app on my phone urges me to continue on this seemingly remote road, and sometimes I do, despite having to reverse or somehow squeeze by an occasional car coming towards me.  Other times, I stop and phone my host to double-check, like last week when my son said, 'Mom, no way, this CAN'T be right!'.  Yet EVERY time, I am surprised to find myself eventually at a tall, often forbidding gate that when opened remotely, takes me down a rough driveway that ends up at......a gorgeous French home.  And all the other gates along the crazy road I've just driven down lead to similar homes.  I've never seen anything like this anywhere!  A French friend tells me that this may be a bit particular to the south.  I don't know yet what to call the phenomenon, but I still find it so surprising.

What is it about the forbidding routes to residential homes?  I've decided these are the result of shrewd calculations about impression management, coupled with perhaps a greater French tolerance for discomfort.  Or, maybe there is some stinginess too?  First impressions and packaging are very important to the French, when it comes to public encounters and outward appearances.  People dress well here, especially in town like the woman I saw in Aix today walking her dog in the highest, spikiest heels I could imagine for the job.  Gifts and pastries all arrive pretty in boxes, with even single pastries laboriously packaged, such as l'opéra that I enjoyed myself one night recently.  But, family homes are much more private here than in many other places; they hide behind high walls and gated driveways.  Earlier, I suggested that this is in part  for reasons of privacy and concerns about security (see Maisons and chateaux, November 2012).  Popping over to borrow a cup of sugar from a neighbor might not be that common here, because popping over would mean exiting one's gate, ringing the buzzer on the neighbor's, and that puts pressure on the neighbors to keep up appearances and manage impressions.  Perhaps because family and home lives seem to be more private here, people may be less compelled to make the effort to create a beautiful, comfortable entry road to one's home.  It also seems to be true that the French tolerate personal discomforts to a degree that many others might not (eg. bathroom facilities, indoor heating...), even tolerating unhappiness more than most (see Contentement, May 2013).   Bouncing along on a ungroomed, unpaved, uneven, tiny road to get to and from work or school each day may just not be a big deal to many people here.  Or, maybe some are simply not willing to fork out the money to improve the roads to their homes?  Is this another one of those instances where if the public interest isn't there, no one will take care of a bumpy situation?

24 August 2013

Un été en Provence

One summer in Provence is often like any other; they seem to have a timeless quality about them.  The many old rituals that mark the beginning of summer here are one contributor to that sense, as I recounted a bit breathlessly last summer. (See L'estival, June 2012).  This year, the images presented in artistic and literary works, especially those by Provençal natives, have revealed other ways in which Provençal summers have eternal qualities.  For example, at the major two-part art exhibition in Aix and Marseille right now called Le Grand Atelier Du Midi, I saw scenes and portrayals of Provence by the painter Paul Cézanne, and others, that were astonishingly similar to sights we can see today even though they were painted up to 100 years ago--the gorgeous seashores and ports at Marseille or Cassis or Nice, and the hilly and mountainous landscapes of scrubby pines, olive groves, red soil near Aix and in the Luberon, the baigneurs (bathers), the agricultural workers, the people reposing on verandas or near open windows.  The artists who make up what is being called 'the studio of the south' all saw, despite their different styles and portrayals, the same amazing azure color of the Mediterranean sea, and the light, that famous Provençal light, that we ourselves can see here every day in 2013.  (See my earlier post about this exhibition, Les oeuvres d'art, June 2013.)

The timelessness of Provençal summers is also echoed in literature.  I've recently completed two parts of playwright Marcel Pagnol's memoirs in which he describes summer holidays in le midi (the south) starting in 1903 when he was the same age as my boys, about to enter quatrième (4th grade, or U.S. 8th grade). In La gloire de mon père we learn about the magical first summer at la Bastide Neuve  near La Treille with his aunt's family, and the epic opening day of hunting season which brought unexpected glory to his teacher-father and a new friendship to Pagnol himself.  The second book, Le chateau de ma mère describes how Pagnol's family managed to continue their visits to the beloved Provençal summer place during the school year despite the difficult and long distance from their home. (Both books have been translated into English: My father's glory, My mother's castle.)  The ways in which Pagnol described the landscape, the daily routines, the summer foods, even the melancholia associated with the end of summer holidays, continue to be evocative of Provençal summers today.  Not a day has gone by this month that we haven't heard descendants of the cicadas that Pagnol described, and the heat in August continues to bake the ground as it has each late summer since time immemorial.  Likewise, 21st century late summer days seem to be as languid as those experienced by Pagnol's family, with slow, lazy afternoons, drinks enjoyed outside, and the late and leisurely market-fresh dinners.  Even that first bit of sadness marking the end of the holidays has begun for us as it did for young Marcel many summers ago.  Some of the details differ, as Pagnol was describing a time when transportation and electricity were still fairly primitive and not widely accessible.  Our end-of-summer melancholia is reflected by the need to turn on electric lights as darkness cuts our dinners on the terrace a bit shorter each night, and by the filling up again of the empty parking spots on our street as locals return from their own holidays.  However, just as Provençal summers have always been marked with a sudden influx of fêtes, special market days, and boules tournaments that then gradually lead to slower, more relaxing days in the sun and shade, the end of summer, or any season really, is also both sudden and gradual, but in reverse. This is as true today as it was in Pagnol's and Cézanne's Provence, and one could even say it is true anywhere.  Gradually, we make small daily adjustments to our daily routines to accommodate shorter summer days and windier or rainier weather and calendar dates that come closer and closer.  Sometimes we may even try to ignore the signs a little as Pagnol himself did.  But then, suddenly, we have to accept, just like every year, that another wonderful summer, in Provence, or elsewhere, has come and is almost gone.

12 August 2013


Prior to the our first visit to France as a family, a Seattle mother recommended Musée de l'Armée in Paris as an engaging touristic sight for our then pre-teen sons.  We certainly don't glorify war games or weaponry in our family, but after umpteen churches and art museums, military museums offer another glimpse of a nation's history and cultural perspectives in ways that might capture the attention of adolescents.   The World War II images and Napoleon's giant tomb next door certainly stuck with our boys.  The following summer, we visited the battlefields of Normandie and the WWII museum in Caen, and the following spring, we went to see what was left of the World War I battlefields in the Verdun. (For a photo and brief mention of this trip, click here: Les communications internationales, May 2012 ).  We've also watched France's contemporary displays of military might as these are televised on le quatorze juillet (14th of July, a.k.a. Bastille Day).  This past Christmas in London, we made a stop to see England's Imperial War Museum before it closed for a remodel, and just two weeks ago, I took my sons to the Sotamuseo, Finland's military museum in Helsinki.  World War II was the main focus of the museum, and as I was simultaneously reading a novel about a nurse in the north of Finland just as the Germans began their retreat towards the end of World War II (Kätilö by Katja Kettu), I got a better understanding of the complicated warring that took place in Lapland at that time.

In part, our boys are interested in military displays as many children are, without perhaps understanding the true horrors of war.  We also have some family military history as many families do; my husband's grandfather crossed the Channel as an American soldier in the weeks following D-Day and his stories of his time on the Continent are still with us as are the medals and a few letters that he wrote during his tours.  My grandfather was a career officer in the Finnish army, and although he died before I was born, there are many pictures of him in his military uniforms and a few mementos as well.  Finally, there is that small matter of obligatory military training (Asevelvollisuus, or Intti in Finnish slang) in Finland that my bi-national sons may or may not have to fulfill after they turn 18 if they wish to retain their Finnish passports when they are 22 (the age at which they could lose their passports if they don't meet certain conditions).  These conditions, for Finns living abroad, seem to be in flux, but military training or civil service remains a requirement for young Finnish men, and is optional for women.  It has been shortened considerably since my father, uncles and even my male cousins took their training, from over a year to something like 6 months to a year, although the obligation to step up in times of war lasts throughout adulthood.  In any case, my boys know that military training is a real possibility for them, and at the Finnish war museum, we had the opportunity to see what kind of clothing and equipment are issued to recruits today and to try on both an army jacket from World War II and from the contemporary period.  A film showed us some of the activities of contemporary Finnish soldiers, particularly as members of U.N. peace-keeping forces.

As 13-year olds, my boys don't really know if and when they will participate, or if they will even want to; one boy expressed concerns about 'boot camp' (he's probably watched too many U.S. movies of screaming U.S. Army sergeants), while the other one pointed out that the training period would provide a good opportunity to learn Finnish well.  For my part, I am wary of the social control and structural conditions present within the military order, even though I recognize that the military is an essential social institution, one that ensures the protection of societies.  Furthermore, military training and/or service can offer young men and women tools with which to learn how to structure and prioritize one's time and can help build self-confidence and self-discipline. It is this last point that I was thinking of when I saw this funny Finnish military poster from the 1980's that promoted puhtaus ja terveys (hygiene and health).  The bubbles are titled (from top left and clockwise): Brush your teeth, Comb your hair, Keep your armpits clean (!), Remember genital hygiene (!), Wash your feet every day, Take a shower, Wash your hands, and Shave.  Those are the very things we are working on right now with our young teens, and if it will take a short Intti stint to cement those habits, I might be ready to send them next summer.


06 August 2013

Jalapeños in Helsinki

A few years ago, one of my retired graduate school mentors dropped me a line after his first-ever trip to Finland.  He saw many people that resembled me, which he explained as persistent evidence of inbreeding in a still relatively insular society.  (I was amused by this characteristic observation from a confirmed sociobiologist).  On my recent trip to Finland after two years in southern France where people seem shorter and smaller and have more dramatic coloring, I did feel like my blonde hair, pale skin, and height were just about average.  In my own sociological view though, what really stood out for me on my visit was how globally diverse Finland has become, and how easily English rolled off people's tongues.

I was thrilled to discover so many people of foreign origins speaking Finnish fluently.  There was the man of Chinese, or perhaps Korean origin, who sold me a hat at the flea market in Naantali; his Finnish had a lovely inflection as did the Helsinki bus driver's, whose native tongue was probably Arabic.  At the airport, the young grocery store cashier with the dark, perhaps African complexion seemed to have absolutely no accent that I could detect, nor did the airline agent of Somali or north-central African origin.  Aside from a course I took many years ago in Helsinki with other young students from mostly Europe, I have never before heard fluent Finnish spoken by such a diverse group of people. In the past, it was my accent or inflections that puzzled Finns who couldn't quite place my origins.  Today, many more immigrants have come to Finland from beyond Europe, settling in to work and learn the language of their new country.

I was also pleasantly surprised by the ease with which young Finns slip between English and Finnish.  When I was younger, just the shop clerks at the big department stores and flight crews spoke English comfortably, but now, museum ticket-takers, waiters, ice cream stand sellers, apartment managers, all effortlessly switched to English when my husband was talking, and then switched back to Finnish when I spoke up.  Today, English is the first foreign language that Finnish schoolchildren take in school, and it is then followed by, instead of preceded by, the second national language, Swedish.  This, along with the ubiquitous English-language television programming which is subtitled but not dubbed as it is in France, means that Finns are broadly exposed to English.  It is after all the official language of the EU.  Yet it doesn't appear that Finnish is disappearing by any means, as it clearly remains important for the immigrants who make Finland their home.  As with many languages, external influences are enhancing how the Finnish vocabulary develops.  In a short article in a Finnish women's magazine, the chairperson of the Left-Wing Youth used many Anglicisms: would people get the 'pointi', if women 'sheivaa' or not their body hair? ("Antaa Rehottaa", Me Naiset, 1.8.2013, nro. 31, p. 16).

Finally, we also observed that the foreign culinary influence in Finland has widened, as we discovered jalapeños on our hamburgers and pizzas! Subsequently, we noticed the proliferation of Mexican-influenced restaurants in Helsinki.  While we enjoyed eating certain uniquely Finnish foods (the meat pies, the rice pasties, Fazer chocolates and candies), we did appreciate the flavor enhancements brought about by globalization.  Apparently, so do other Finns.  In a newspaper interview comparing the values of Finnish elites and ordinary people (that I happened to catch a glimpse of at the Cafe Strindberg on my second to last day in Helsinki, "Homoliitto erotti eliitti-Benin ja kansa-Karon" by Hannu Tikkala, 4.8.2013, Helsingin Sanomat), the Finnish guy representing the point of view of ordinary Finns pointed out that having international workers and people in Finland means that Finland gets better food...and better-looking people.  While I don't know about the latter, there are clearly benefits associated with the global movement of people, languages, and traditions.

24 July 2013

Une canicule

Carte de vigilance météoThe French call a heat wave une canicule, and the central part of France is suffering from one at the moment.  Météo France has the yellow alert showing on its map, while NE France is on orange alert for severe thunderstorms, and we in the southeast, where it is hot, hot, hot, (34-36 degrees, or mid to high 90s Fahrenheit), do not have any particular weather warning. My body tells me though that if we are not quite at a canicule we must be close, as I seem to have contracted an often heat-related illness, a kidney or urinal tract infection.   Unbeknownst to me, these are more common in hotter climates due to the dangers presented by dehydration, and some even predict we may see an upswing in such illnesses with global warning.  (Here's one article about this, "Could Global Warming...." Scientific American 2008).  I wonder how the French avoid dehydration because it seems like all they drink are small coffees, glasses of wine, and water just at mealtimes.  (And I won't go into the paltry and often archaic public toilets.)  As for me, I'm back to the American habit of lugging a water bottle around with me (something the French just don't do), and then there is the small matter of avoiding the sun (in Aix?) and sports while on medication.

The reason we do not have a heat wave warning here despite many days above 30 degrees is that the definitions of a heat wave are subjective, and are often geographically and culturally distinct.  According to the French definition of a heatwave, the temperatures for day times must be above 30-35 degrees and the night time temperatures must exceed 18-20 degrees, for more than 3 days.  This definition is presented in terms of health, as the French look to the nighttime temperatures to see if these get cool enough to bring relief to bring down body temperatures, whereas definitions elsewhere seem to focus on a consistently high daytime temperature.  (See this discussion in French, in Futura Science magazine.)  I presume that the nighttime lows have been low enough here in Provence to avoid the designation of canicule, and that we must need to reach a higher temperature reading than say Cherbourg, in the north of France, before we qualify for the designation. Otherwise, I supposed we'd be in heat wave range every week here.  In any case, the national weather service points out that heat wave designations are rarely made (Phénomènes Météo, Les Canicules, Météo France).  Wikipedia offers some interesting examples of the subjectivity associated with heat wave definitions, showing that high temperatures above 100 degrees Fahrenheit qualify for a heat storm in California, for example.  I particularly like the Swedish definition, of 5 or more days above 25 degrees (77 degrees Fahrenheit).  That just about matches my personal threshold for heat, yet it would be very funny to the Aixois to think that such a low temperature could qualify for a heat wave.  Heat wave or no, we are surviving the current heat with fans blowing throughout our apartment, and by drinking copious amounts of homemade granitas with our cute Magic Freez' mugs.  (Congelez, pressez, dégustez! Freeze, press, and enjoy!).  And this weekend we escape to the north ourselves, where we will gladly take a Finnish heat wave or something less dramatic, just to cool off for a few days.

19 July 2013

La jeunesse

Two paintings by Agnolo di Cosimo, Firenze, Uffizi, 1540's
One of my favorite lessons in my sociology of family course is on the changing meanings of childhood.  Some argue that children in the past centuries were essentially treated as little adults, contributing to household economies and serving as means by which to solidify family alliances.  Only later when the industrial revolution altered familial functions and roles do we see the emergence of childhood as a special stage of life. Children's ages and feelings may not have changed, but how they are viewed and presented in society has, which is another way of saying that while age may be reflected physically and psychologically, it is also social.  (The images above portray children of the Medici family as small adults.  From our contemporary view, we might guess that these children were chafing in those adult-like outfits and poses.) We also have cultural and class-based variations in our understandings of childhood;  I have learned this week that the French often call adolescence l'âge bête, which conveys the idea that humans are born uncivilized.  It is through childhood and adolescence that they are taught to curb their animal-like natures in order to become productive and upstanding members of society.  In the U.S. we currently have multiple trends, where children are pushed to become little adults and over-achievers, or are seen as capable decision-makers with whom we can reason, or are left to their own devices.  The social understandings of age continue to evolve, as meanings of childhood, of la jeunesse (youth), of young adulthood, and even middle age and old age change, due to economic conditions and changing perceptions of marriage, non-marital sexual activity, parenthood, and longer life spans.

This week I have had further affirmation of how age is a social feature but also an inner state of mind that may not always correspond to the social meaning.  For the past three weeks, I have been part of the first cours intensif de francais (French intensive language course) at the shiny new Alliance Française language school in Aix.  Alongside my Chinese, English, and Spanish classmates, I have been eagerly and diligently working my way through French subjunctives, gerunds, and transitional phrases, just like an eager-to-please first grader in the front row of her classroom.  As a small class, we are all struggling, laughing, and succeeding together, deciphering oral dialogues and correcting the order of double pronouns, pronouncing difficult words so they don't sound like vulgarities (pourtant: pronounce the r, otherwise you get a bad word), learning useful phrases for phone texting, like à + (à plus, which is short for à plus tard, see you later), and ways to describe, or envisager, our dreams for our future.  We take our coffee or tea breaks together and bavarder (chat) a bit.  It seems like we are in the same boat.

But in fact, we are not.  One young classmate has a musical career with a traveling orchestra, while the other two are still students, embarking on post-undergraduate studies in Paris this fall and are in the midst of finding affordable apartments and figuring out bank accounts and cell phones.  I am twice the age of these students, okay...over twice the age, and I am in a completely different life stage.  Just the other day, we took turns selecting discussion questions, and I realized that I chose ones that clearly reflected my current situation as the mother of adolescents, while the students are in intimate relationships.  Learning French, and moving to a new country, yes, we have those things in common, but it is so interesting to realize that one can feel so youthful and so old en même temps!  (at the same time!)   It's not a feeling I often have, as a university and college instructor where I instruct many students the age of my current classmates.  As a temporary student myself though, I guess I feel 21 again, despite my outward appearance and my life stage.   That's what is so confounding, that one can feel much younger (or older) than one's social age.  Fortunately, my classmates don't see my social age as too much of a barrier; we might even go out for drinks next week.

10 July 2013

Avec mention assez bien

Big day in France today as the results of the nation-wide scholastic tests have just been published...publicly.  In June, virtually all middle students, upon completion of troisième (3rd grade, equivalent to U.S. 9th grade), take an exam called le brevet, while the graduating class at lycée (high school) take the baccalauréat, or le bac.  Now all of the results are in, and they are publicly available.  Anyone can see who 'has' his or her brevet or bac, as one says in French, and whether they attained mentions (distinctions) such as assez bien (well-done), in a particular subject.  You can walk up to the school and see the posted list, or apparently you can call the school, or go on the Education Ministry's site, or you can pay to see online, http://www.resultat-exam.fr/examen/resultat-brevet-des-colleges-dnb-professionnel-2013?utm_source=fb&utm_medium=newsfeed&utm_campaign=mmr

All of this is reflective of the distinctions between what is public and private in a given society, a subject I have thought about earlier (see Transparence, April 2013).  In regards to scholastic outcomes, the French are relatively public about whether or not students succeed, even in the classroom where teachers announce grades out loud, whereas in the U.S. the trend has been towards greater privacy.  Today, the old practice of posting university course grades outside one's office door, perhaps by student number rather than name is no longer allowed at most U.S. institutions, nor does one leave final exams lying in a box for students to rife through to find their own.  It may be that we see test outcomes somewhat differently, or that we place different importance on them.  In the U.S., school test results at any level, elementary, secondary, higher education, are largely seen as personal, or individual ones, reflecting a person's intelligence, test-taking ability, successful learning.  Any results that are publicicized are only done so in aggregate form.  And many, if not most, states do not require an exam before one can graduate.  Perhaps in France the terminal exams and the publicizing of the exam results are important because maybe these are a way of publicly accounting for the national educational system's efforts?  After all, everyone takes the same exams on the same days, and the results come out all at once, giving a quick result that the country-at-large can see.  How well are French students doing, how well is the school system doing?  In the U.S. on the other hand, each state has its own version of scholastic tests and its own standards, with few requiring school completion exams, so there is virtually no coordination across states.  While the public may have a loose sense of how well the state educational systems are accomplishing their goals, they have an even vaguer sense of how we are doing on a national level.  For that kind of accounting, we have to look for international comparisons of national educational systems, which is complex on its own for various reasons, and in addition, for the U.S., we have to somehow interpret results for a country with essentially 50 separate educational systems.  In any case, I am certain that there are many personal celebrations going on among the 14/15 year olds, and more so among the 18 year olds in France today, just like there were a few weeks ago among U.S. high school graduates.  For the French who are not celebrating, luckily there are second chances, as one can retake part of the exams in hopes of gaining enough points to attain le bac.

03 July 2013

A la prochaine

From Portraits de boutiques by Lolmède, Rencontres du 9e Art, 2013
While I have been a regular biweekly customer at the local coffee roaster for almost two years (there's only one in Aix that I know of, and it's not a Starbucks), and I have learned over time how to place my order in French for two 500 gr bags of two varieties, ground coarsely for my cafetière à piston (that's what the French call a French press coffee pot), the shop owner and staff at La brulerie are strictly professional with me.  So, I was really surprised by the owner's reaction a few months ago when I discovered my wallet missing from my purse as I was about to pay for my coffee.  I tried to stammer that I was sorry, that I'd run right home and get my wallet, but the owner simply handed me the ground beans and said to me with a discreet smile, pas de soucis (no worries), I could pay on my next visit.  She didn't even make a notation of my IOU.

This gesture has been matched by many others over the past months, suggesting to us that we have become a part of the community here in centre-ville, even if transiently.  Lately, I've noticed that my regular fruit and vegetable vendors at the market now occasionally say à la prochaine (until next time) or à bientôt (see you soon) to me, instead of the customary merci, madame, au revoir.   One of the sellers at our closest bakery is sometimes a bit more personal with our family (I think it's my husband's friendly smile and goofy French), and she will slip a box of day-old sweets into our hands once in a while with subtlety and a smile, as we purchase a baguette or loaf of bread.  She once remarked on my absence after a long spell of grading and other work.  Her co-workers are generally more aloof, although one of them gave me a baguette without payment recently when all I had was a big bill instead of change, saying to me in French, Madame, won't you be coming in again tomorrow?  You can pay for this one then.  Just around the corner from this bakery is a gold and silver shop in front of which stands a security guard whom we first met outside another shop adjacent to our old apartment.  Coincidentally, he changed shops just as we moved to our current apartment nearby, and ever since, we see him nearly every day.  He and our boys regularly exchange fist bumps in passing, and he gets the latest reports about football, rugby or school activities.  Two weeks ago, in his melodious African-accented French, he complimented me on the boys' manners and upbringing when we came across each other on the street.  

How long does it take to feel like one is part of a neighborhood or a community?  In France, because people tend to have many small economic transactions and social exchanges virtually every day, at the bakery and at the produce markets, even if they live in large cities, such social exchanges can become more personalized over a relatively short period of time.  And this personalization can foster a deepening sense of community.  In our case, because we live right in the center of a small, pedestrianized city with a distinct center, we have walked the same streets for nearly 2 years, and even though we still stick out a bit, we are recognized as we cross paths with the same people every day.  Some allow that recognition to reflect a closer bond, such as the caviste (wine seller) who now comes specifically to shake our hands if we stop by for a meal or some wine at his shop/restaurant, or the more reserved husband of my regular vegetable vendor who helped me recently with some suggestions for une assiette de crudités (raw vegetable platter).  My Belorussian hairdresser greets me with bises (cheek kisses) and then we chat in French, our common language, while I have my shampoing/coupe/brushing (shampoo/cut/blowdry).  But not everyone is similarly open.  Of our neighbors across the narrow street on which we live, only the Persian rug shop owners (who appear to be brothers or cousins) regularly greet us daily, while neither the tattoo artist nor the realtor ever make eye contact.  The clerks at the nearby department store, post office, and news stands also seem to be more reserved.  It may be these latter folks that feed the stereotype that outsiders have of the 'haughty' French, but in the big picture, people here are not so different than elsewhere.  Everyone needs some sense of community but carves it out as he or she sees it.  (See Neighborhood people, August 2009 for more on the sense of community.) Who to include as part of that community is up to each person, as is how to do so.  We may not have the chatty and casual exchanges we might have with a grocery store clerk in our Seattle neighborhood, and in France we still must use the formal French vous in speaking with each other, but it deepens my sense of community to know that for the moment, 'my' French fruit vendor considers me essential to his economic and social exchanges and that he really does mean it when he says à la prochaine.