31 January 2013

La vie familiale

The U.S. academic and mainstream presses have been highlighting the significant social class differences in how Americans experience family life, and the distinctive outcomes that such experiences bring.  What we are seeing is twofold.  The middle is falling out of the middle class, in that the median income of the middle class is falling and the middle class share of the nation's wealth is declining (PEW Research, August 2012. "[video] Lost Decade of the Middle Class." Social and Demographic Trends).  As the the middle thins out, we are noting increasingly disparate family patterns at each end, in terms of coupling, childrearing, and life chances.  Families in the upper middle class and above are increasingly more likely to be led by married couples, and these families contain children who receive a great deal of attention and enrichment in their lives, thanks to the opportunities afforded by two incomes and the presence of two educated adults.  Families on the lower end of the social class spectrum, those slipping out of that shrinking middle section and below, are increasingly much less likely to consist of two parent households or to be created out of marriage, and the parents in such families are less well-educated, work in relatively unstable and low-paying service occupations, and struggle to offer children adequate educations let alone the chances to develop themselves in other ways.  A particularly poignant portrait of this is provided in Jason DeParle's article from this past summer (July 14, 2012, "Two Classes, Divided by 'I do'." The New York Times.).  The article collection that I use for my sociology of family courses (Public and Private Families A Reader, 7th edition, edited by Andrew Cherlin, 2013) reflects this shift as well, as there is a recurrent focus on the social class divide in family experience in many of the articles in the newest edition.

In France, distinctive family patterns by class are not immediately obvious.  People generally seem to dress well and eat well here, and la vie familiale (family life) seems relatively similar across social class.  Sure, there is a high divorce rate here too, and unmarried childbearing is not uncommon, but it occurs at the top and bottom (witness France's president!), and families with children, of all class backgrounds and parental structures, can and do receive broad financial support in France in the form of educational, food and other kinds of public subsidies (not to mention tax breaks for having kids in school).  This modulates the living standards and to some extent, life chances, giving a more uniform experience across the social classes.  Even children of single mothers or parents with relatively low-paying jobs seem able to outfit themselves in the latest skater gear, and  participate in extracurricular activities, purchase books, and may go on to public university (if they complete their compulsory educations, a spot is guaranteed), something we simply don't see across the board for U.S. children.  In our own experience here, we note that the soccer club fees we pay in France for one adolescent son are barely 10% of what we paid in Seattle, and the département (administrative region) in which we live provides booklets of vouchers for every middle school child which further reduce sports participation fees and the prices of tickets to movies or cultural performances (pictured above).  And then there is that high-quality, centralized public school system that most French schoolchildren attend, complete with a substantial four-course meal (the price of which can also be reduced), in contrast to the U.S. where school quality and school food vary greatly by state and community, further accentuating any class disadvantages that already exist. 

Yet, the French middle has also hollowed out a bit (see short video The Globe and Mail, Feb. 22, 2012, "Tough Choices for France's Middle Class"), and the 'social elevator' that was powered by earlier, more generous social programs and that created the attendant social leveling of the previous decades has slowed down during the current period of economic stagnation in France and elsewhere in Europe.  Will distinctive class patterns and outcomes become more evident among French families as a result?  The data will tell.  On the other hand, there are probably greater distinctions among French families than I can recognize, struggling as I am as a foreigner to read the social cues and understand the conversations around me.  I do sense the surprise of local acquaintances when we mention a recent trip to Paris, or the gently raised eyebrows of the staff when I pay our children's sport fees in full and before the deadline.  And I still think back to that conversation with my former driving school teacher during one of her cigarette breaks (I mentioned this also in a post last summer, Je ne sais quo ) when she emphatically pointed out the rigidity of the French class system, the fact that someone of the French lawyer 'class' would have virtually no reason ever to socially interact with or speak to someone like her.  By extension then, I have to suspect that as her children experience life from a similar social position and under challenging economic conditions to boot, class privilege and oppression will play an ever greater role in France too, in accentuating existing social patterns and determining family and personal outcomes.

22 January 2013

La cuisine fusion

Having been away from the U.S. for a year and a half, there are definitely foods and flavors we are missing.  Initially, we really missed Mexican food, improvising with chile peppers for jalapeños, and white or kidney beans for pinto beans.  We've gratefully accepted and frozen 100% corn tortillas from the U.S., yet we do appreciate the excellent avocados, coriandre (cilantro or fresh coriander) and seasonal tomatoes here.  More recently, it's the flavors of Asian food that we are craving.  There are several ethnic food stores in Aix, specializing in halal (food prepared according to Muslim dietary rules), orientale (Asian), and exotique (some of the above).  The one closest to us stocks the Asian foods we are most familiar with given our Seattle ties, and lately, I have been there more frequently than usual, adding tamarind paste, miso paste, and lemongrass to my regular purchases of fresh bok choy, soy sauce, noodles, and rice.  This is in part thanks to our purchase of a cookbook from the British-based restaurant chain Wagamama, which we visited twice while in London.  Certainly, Aix restaurants offer la cuisine orientale (Asian food), especially Chinese, Japanese and Vietnamese, but what's missing are the Asian fusion foods that are so typical in the bigger U.S. cities, and that we so happily discovered in London.  We miss that amalgam of flavors and menus and ethnic specialties, where lemongrass mixes with soy sauce mixes with ketchup, and Korean noodles find themselves in Japanese miso broths alongside Chinese cabbage.  Some call this 'fake' Asian food, but what is authentic food anyway?

Here in France, one might say we are eating somewhat more authentic national cuisine, as it seems that everyone living here is intimately familiar with this cuisine, with its ingredients, how it's prepared, and how one eats it.  Traditional French foods we've eaten in the past weeks have included les entrées (appetizers) of escargot, or snails, main dishes of daube (meats cooked in wine sauces) or confit de canard (duck legs in their own fat), and plenty of cheeses and desserts.  Our kids' school meals are especially traditionally French, in the number of courses and what they contain.  In the U.S. on the other hand, we have grown up eating from a much broader plate, where meals, even single dishes, are comprised of a variety of ethnic flavors and foods.  When you think about it, all of American cuisine is fusion-based, since most 'American' foods have come to the U.S. via the movement of people across borders, from all directions.  (Much of it comes from immigration processes, but we also must account for the forced migrations and uprootings of peoples too, all of whom have and had their own food traditions.)  In the process, whatever traditional, 'authentic' recipes were brought by immigrants, or slaves, or indentured servants, have been fused to what is locally available (remember the stories of how the natives taught new arrivals how to plant corn?).  Later, the flavors of the meals become more complex with increased interactions with other new arrivals of different backgrounds.  In some respects many so-called traditional foods are not even so similar or authentic anymore to what is made back in the country-of-origin, such as the 'Chinese food' or 'Tex-Mex food' in the United States.  In my own ethnic traditions, even the processes have changed, in the opposite direction; what I learned to prepare from my immigrant mother were the Finnish holiday sweets, made 'authentically' from scratch, where butter pastries were laboriously mixed and folded over and over before being rolled out, and fillings were cooked from scratch, whereas my friends and cousins in Finland just go to the grocery store and buy the cookie doughs and fillings ready made.  The theme, of fusion, is something one recognizes with other social forces too, and not just in relation to food preparation and the meals themselves.  For example, this quarter in my sociology of religion course, we explore how the effects of immigration and the interactions and experiences with new people in a new place often result in new forms of immigrant religious practice.  Surely, these feel authentic to those following them.

As for France, its sources of immigration are much tighter geographically (coming mostly from the south and east), and thus, the external influences on its foods (and other practices) feel narrower or smaller.  There are certainly regional variations in the French cuisine that are influenced in part by the movement of people across borders, from the heavier German-style cuisine in the northeast Alsace region to the Mediterranean flavors here in the south.   Yet, it still seems to me that there is a tighter definition of what French food is and how it is prepared and experienced, and this is shared across the entire country.  Maybe it's because of the French school system's lunch offerings or standardized French geography lessons where children learn about the culinary and viticultural specialties of each region.  Maybe it's the relatively narrower range of foods available in regular grocery stores.  Or perhaps immigrants here face greater pressures to assimilate to French ways; people here are either French or they are foreigners, and fused, hyphenated, French-something or other identities are not as commonly expressed or recognized as they are in the U.S.  Whatever it is, as foreigners here, I feel grateful to be able to experience French cuisine, however authentic it is or isn't, in the place where it originated, while also satisfying my family's hankerings for foods from 'home'.

So, you can just call me a wagamama,* as I cook my way through my new cookbook, creating new fusions of la cuisine fusion, where tonight's Asian-influenced mackerel with soy and ginger was in fact pêche en Méditerranée (fished from the Med's waters) and the spicy vegetable stir-fry consisted of bok choy grown in the French town of Orange, west of here, and the peppers came from Vietnam.

*Or am I?  Apparently, a wagamama is not a mama at all, but a willful person, or even a naughty child, perhaps meant to signify the restaurant chain's philosophy of not following any one food tradition too religiously.  (http://www.wagamama.com/about-us)

15 January 2013

Manger ~ bouger

The French may not be as 'sporty' as Americans and northern Europeans, but they seem as likely as the rest to use the new year as a catalyst for getting one's body and physical fitness in order (like one tries do with one's living spaces too, see my previous post, Faire le ménage).  Despite the worldwide attention that rich, delicious French cuisine gets, and the popularity of books that tell us that French women don't get fat, obesity is in fact a growing healthcare problem here as it is elsewhere in the West.  A recent interview in Paris Match with the Health minister Marisol Touraine highlights this fact (Chavelet, Nov. 12 2012. "Marisol Touraine fait monter la température." Paris Match ) as does the revelation in the New York Times Magazine that weight-management company Jenny Craig is alive and well in France (see Dominus, June 2012. "French Women Worry About Getting Fat, Too, The NY Times").  The French obesity rate is half of that in the U.S., but within France, it has doubled in about 15 years.  This tells us that the French are no different than citoyens (citizens) of any other post-industrialized society where the standards of living are comfortable and most people eat enough, but where as a consequence of this 'plenty', the food choices and physical activity do not always balance each other out. Obesity is an epidemic health condition in well-to-do societies.

The French get their taste for sugar early on.  The normal gôuter (the small snack for kids after school) as I've seen it here in the south is often pain au chocolate (either a factory-made soft roll with chocolate which the grocery stores stock in large quantities, or if you're lucky, a fresh bakery-made flaky croissant with chocolate--it's small, but it's sweet).  My own kids marvel at some of their classmates' obsessions with candy and soda, and the food young rugby and soccer players eat between and after matches at tournaments is astonishingly junky.  It's a lot of sugar and carbohydrates and fat.  The upside is that these foods are generally not made with high fructose corn syrup, like in the U.S. (even the soda tastes different here), but sugar isn't exactly good for you either, nor is the processing of natural ingredients into food products like Nutella (the hazelnut chocolate spread, which one of my sons really likes).  In November, the government began pursuing a Nutella-tax, on palm oil, as one way to reduce the consumption of saturated fat-laden foods in France. 

One response to the concerns about the deteriorating physical conditioning of the French is a public health campaign similar to the American Let's Move initiative led by U.S. First Lady Michelle Obama.  The French version is called  Manger Bouger and the goals are: bien manger (to eat healthfully) and bouger plus (to move more).   Living in a relatively temperate climate in the south of France, it's easy to bouger, even though it took a while to discover where people exercise and what they do.  This is not a country of large-scale, 24-hour health clubs as my spouse discovered (some are even closed on the weekends and evenings!).  But if I get up early enough on a weekday, or take a late weekend afternoon walk, I see Aixois going for jogs or walks around town or in one larger city park with running trails.  Every time we've gone for a swim, the lap lanes at the city pool near us have been crowded.  More recently I've discovered the popular randonée (hiking).  The parking lots at trailheads in Provence are frequently crowded in the afternoons and on the weekends, and there are people of all shapes and backgrounds hiking.  Numerous hiking clubs around the area also organize weekly or monthly hikes at the calanques on the coast or in the rocky fortresses and canyons further inland. Luckily for me, a Finnish friend and I have formed a casual hiking club of two, and we have walked near the dams that supply drinking water in our area, and below, I'm pictured on a trail near the base of Aix's rocky Mount Sainte Victoire.  It's only during the summer that hiking is difficult as the trails are opened for limited times due to the very dry conditions, the heat, and the fire danger.  By that time, I suppose, we should all have mangé'd and bougé'd enough to get ourselves in shape for the beach or the pool, the only really comfortable places to hang out during the broiling summer months.

08 January 2013

Faire le ménage

One of my favorite parts of the new year are the cleaning up and packing away of the holiday decorations, the sweeping of the Christmas tree needles and dust bunnies, and the rearranging of furniture. It feels good, to faire le ménage et ranger (to tidy up well, or do housework, and to organize one's spaces). I always marvel at how spare the living room can look after just a few weeks of being festooned in ornaments, holiday runners, and lights and a tree.

Aix and the surrounding communities are all doing their part to spruce up for 2013.  The Aixois have been cleaning house by discarding their trees on street corners (for the daily garbage pick-up) or at disposal stations around town, trailing white flocking and needles. (The French tend to use simple tree stands without water wells so the trees are dry, dry, dry by the time the holiday has passed.  In contrast, this year we bought a living Christmas tree which survived the holiday intact and has found a home in my friend's jardin.)

As some trees lose their ornaments, others are being gussied up.  This week, the majestic plane trees along Aix's Cours Mirabeau are getting a new look.  (These trees have many functions: they provide shade during the hot summer, roosts for the loud city birds, and bases for the strands and strands of holiday lights in December.)  To mark l'ouverture (the opening or beginning) of Marseille's turn as La capitale Européenne de la culture (the European capital of culture), nearby towns and communities are cleaning up and will open art trails this weekend (apparently it's a regional affair despite Marseille getting the designation), so les arbres (the trees) on the boulevard are getting bright wraps as part of an art installation by renowned Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama.  The red and white polka dots combined with Aix's customary yellow and red striped banners create quite a fun, fantastical, Dr. Seussian look.

Perhaps that look is emblematic of the festivities ahead of us, whimsical but a bit nonsensical too.  We are not clear on what to expect with this 'year of culture', as it seems that Marseille is not yet finished with its housework and thus is not quite ready for its festivities.  Several museums remain unfinished or closed, le vieux port (the old harbor) has only just had its fences taken down, and the Marseille-Provence 2013 agenda I have only goes through March.  Furthermore, as a friend and I agreed over lunch today, the language used to describe the events is vague at best, suggesting that everything isn't planned out fully yet.  It's a bit astonishing given that Marseille has been preparing for this year for some time.  On the other hand, Marseille is not a tidy city that is bien rangé (orderly) under normal circumstances, and life in France in general is not a life of tight and detailed schedules.  In our daily lives here, we are often winging each day and week, as school or sports or civic events crop up or get canceled just like that, and rarely well in advance, and shops and restaurants or services are closed (or opened) without notice.  It's easy to get frustrated with this seeming lack of order.  I have discovered though that I am generally calmer if I just accept the laid-back mode of living and scheduling (and I recognize that I have the privilege of being flexible).  In a way, it's like Dr. Seuss again, if you go with the flow, "Oh! The places you'll go!"  I wonder where Marseille-Provence 2013 will take us?

03 January 2013

Gum + butts

After nearly 17 months, my family spent the week after Christmas among other English-speakers in an English-speaking country.  What a relief to finally be seen as somewhat intelligent, to be able to make small talk or polite talk with some confidence and understanding.  (Today, I was back to being unable to do any of that, with neither the sales clerk at Monoprix nor the woman taking my order at Bechard's pastry shop!)  

However, language, even if shared or widely spoken, is not static nor is it unrelated to the culture in which it exists.  Britishisms are popular in the U.S. these days (I wrote about them briefly in Who is barmy over what? October 2012), but we still had our moments in London where we had to think twice, just like the French have to do when visiting Switzerland or Belgium or parts of Africa.  London signs noting "subway" do not lead to subway trains as we know them in the U.S., but to subterranean paths under a road to the other side.  We didn't mind "minding the gaps" and doors of the Tube once we got to the real Underground, because we could at least understand what was being said.  Our Beefeater guide at the Tower of London on the other hand was incomprehensible at times!

The British use English and speak of topics in ways that seem especially bold, direct, almost irreverent to our ears and eyes, and that too is cultural.  They aren't shy about telling you where to put your trash, gum and cigarette butts, for example.  (I wonder if such direct language might work better in France too where generally things are much more polite or even unaddressed, but where the current approaches to dealing with the dirty business of little French dogs or the ubiquitous cigarette butts obviously don't work well.  Why not try it? La poubelle est ICI-the garbage can is here!)  In regards to other kinds of butts, we were directed by acquaintances and guidebooks to check out the knickers and pants at Marks and Spencer, and we are now well-supplied in the underwear department.  And in stocking up on English-language reading material at Waterstone's bookstore, I found one of the past year's most popular British books, the feminist-memoir, How To Be A Woman by Caitlin Moran.  Her English is as lively, in-your-face, and 'skanky' as the stories she tells of coming of age in post-modern England. 

On the other hand, direct or no, there are some less comprehensible customs and language usages in Britain that leave us shaking our heads (just as there are in France, the United States, in every society in fact).  I wondered about the labeling of trains within the Tube stations; these are either east- or west-bound (instead of consistently being labeled by their ending destination as they are in Paris), but it seems that some are actually traveling more northerly or southerly.  How to decide which one to get on, if you are in a hurry?  On another transportation point, having just mastered 'French driving', I found myself wondering, strictly hypothetically, would I be able to repeat that feat in another country...where the driving takes place on the left side of the road but on the right side of the car?  Wouldn't it just be easier, for drivers and pedestrians alike, native and foreign, to have everyone always look to the right then left, rather than having to tell people over and over that in fact, you have to look left at this crossing, and right at that one?