25 February 2013

Les boules de neige

Like boules de neige (snowballs) that get bigger and denser the more snow you pack into them, the ski resorts in France are getting more and more crowded in this second week of les vacances scolaires (school holidays). French school 'districts' are divided into three zones (Aix schools fall into zone B), and the school winter and spring holidays are staggered by zone so that holiday locales can adequately meet the domestic demand for accommodations and space. Each year a different zone begins the holiday cycle; last year zone B had the last winter and spring holidays, occurring in mid-March and early May, respectively, while this year zone B starts off the cycle. Unfortunately, we could not get away the first week, so our zone B family's stay at a little 10-room hotel aptly called La boule de neige, in the ski resort at Serre Chevalier, near Briançon, overlaps with a zone A family's, from Lyon. (The Parisians of zone C arrive one week later by which time our kids will be back in school.)

The crowding and the scheduling of the family ski day seems to be especially attuned to mealtimes, which is of course especially French (even if not all that different from family ski days at resorts in other parts of the world). Ski lifts open at 9 here in the southern Alps, and the télésiège (chairlift) and télécabine (gondola) lines are heavy by 10:30, after the leisurely petit déjeuners (breakfasts) with chocolat chauds (hot chocolates) and croissants have been eaten. The activity on the slopes quiets down considerably during the sacrosanct midday mealtime (except at the mountain and village restaurants!), and then again, after 5 pm, when one begins to see bunches of baguettes under the arms of ski parkas in the village. By this time, the last chairlifts stop running and families prepare for goûters and apéros (snacks and cocktails), before the evening meal around 7 or 8 pm.

Interestingly, we've met several adults without kids, French and foreigners alike, who are or were vacationing here at this same time as all of these French families with schoolchildren. If I were an avid skier and a parent without children at home (I am neither), I think I would avoid this particularly crowded time. One would think the accommodations would be cheaper and more widely available, and the village less boisterous (there's a carousel and marching band in ours, and a Wednesday evening super-spectacle complete with torch-bearing skiers and a fireworks display!), while the lines would be virtually non-existent and the snow would be as good and powdery even a few weeks on either side of the school holidays. We were in the Haute Savoie last Easter, outside of the school holiday times and had good snow, very short chairlift lines, and lots of fin de saison (end of ski season) sales on ski gear. (I mentioned this trip in a post in April 2012 called Département 13.). I'm sure the local hotel and restaurant proprietors appreciate the extended and less frenetic holiday times, but for many guests, I suppose part of the charm of alpine skiing is the lively aprés-ski scene. Without the hustle and bustle of vacationing families in the villages, the excitement and energy of the social environment after skiing is likely much lower, weaker, or might we say, softer, just like snowballs made of snow too early or too late in the season.

15 February 2013

Où est le boeuf?

Lately I've been having some fun collecting creative food names in French, particularly in the sweets department.  The highly descriptive millefeuille (thousand leaves or sheets) is what the French call a Napoleon, and langues du chat (cat's tongues) are lovely shortbread-like biscuits. Last week I discovered les lunettes de Romans (the Romans' glasses) at the grocery store, and then there are the hilarious pets de nonnes which are currently available at several local bakeries in Aix (these 'nuns' farts' are just doughnut holes to you and me).  I can enjoy all of the above with a noisette, which is an espresso shot with just enough milk to turn the color of a hazelnut for which it is named.  The French aren't all that unusual, as I can think of creative names for foods in other places I've lived; in the U.S. we eat elephant ears, or pigs in a blanket, and for a simple meal I really enjoy köyhät ritarit (poor knights) as they are named in Finnish, which are French toast in English and pain perdu (lost bread) in French!  How's that for creative?

In Europe, some overly creative naming of food is very much in the news right now, after the discovery that horsemeat has been packaged and labeled as ground beef, and manufactured into packaged meals and sold to European consumers.  The scandal implicates a French company and reveals a convoluted European food supply chain.  Indeed, où est le boeuf (where's the beef)On the one hand, it seems that the French are generally less scandalized by the creative advertising of horsemeat, and this is in part because horsemeat is consumed here.  Apparently there is a stand at the market in Aix where la viande de cheval (horsemeat) is available, and in Paris too there are boucheries (butchers) that specialize in it.  The outrage is apparently particularly great among the Brits for whom horses are dearly beloved pets and not meant to be consumed as food. (See The French Observatory blog post Why are the British so fussy about horsemeat? 2/13/2013).

For the French, their real beef more likely lies in the implications of the story of la viande (meat).  French factory-processed, Romanian horsemeat lasagne just is not consistent with the hallowed French traditions surrounding food, knowing where it comes from, buying it specially selected, preparing it with elaborate techniques, and then, serving it and eating it slowly with great pleasure and with great wine.  Revering locally produced food is a big part of these traditions.  We have a great deal of local produce available to us in the south, but even so, many food items are expensive here, especially meat and poultry.  Our family consumes much less meat here for that reason.  We've made a few exceptions, for example, we bought an 8 kilo (about 18 lbs) Thanksgiving turkey at the neighborhood boucherie (butcher/meat shop) to prepare for a belated Thanksgiving with our French friends.  This French bird cost us 66 euros or 88 U.S. dollars!  Even sweets can be expensive.  In early January we had some school and sports families over for an epiphany party where I served epiphany cakes from two local shops.  The bill for the brioche-style  gateaux (cakes) for 20 people from the best patisserie (pastry shop) in town, was..., ahem, over 100 euros !  Okay, the line was out the door when I went to get my special red boxes from the shop, the gateaux were really, really delicious, and they contained real santons (figurines) for the lucky recipients, but they sure were pricey!  Certainly, these were special foods for special occasions, but even the weekly meat purchases and our Sunday afternoon cakes add up.  I have adolescent boys who are always hungry, so I resort to buying multipacks of meat, big bags of produce, room-temperature milk and sometimes, les plats préparés (prepared meals) at the local supermarkets, hoping I'm getting good quality, much like many, many French families do.  I'd love to buy more food in bulk, and meat from a farm, like we do in Seattle, buying from relatives who grow happy beef, (and there are sources here, even grass-fed beef raised by a former Seattle family in SW France: http://bratlikeme.com/), but where would I store this food in my French apartment and how often do I have time to prepare it well, working as I am?  The freezer in our tall but skinny French refrigerator is always jammed full, and I am always in a jam trying to squeeze in decent meals on the days I try to both work and schlep children to activities.  Perhaps this is the most scandalous thing about 'le faux boeuf' (the fake beef); it brings to light the fact that even though the French famously love their food, to be able to buy the best quality from local sources, to have the time and resources to prepare it and enjoy it slowly and lovingly, this all requires far more money, time, and creativity than many people can muster.

11 February 2013


As  I prepare my online courses for each quarter, I frequently think about ways to engage my students actively.  The emphasis on active learning is especially strong at the community college-level, where more personalized instruction is often possible and learning outcomes are frequently tied to active learning strategies, but I employ such strategies as much as I can at the university level too.  Active learning strategies are essentially a pont (a bridge) between the abstract concepts we teach and the concrete understanding of these.  By engaging learners actively in understanding a concept or procedure or way of thinking, such as through experience, or a project, or experiment, we hope to create higher-order and more independent thinking.  Some of the bridging strategies we employ today are new to higher education, but in other respects, we have long employed active learning strategies in education.  In particular, I am thinking about the field trip, or the school trip.  Such trips offer active, experiential learning that can enhance what has been learned previously in a classroom.  I fashion field trips for some of my online courses, where I ask students to do an independent field observation of social behavior, or for my face-to-face courses when I require service learning or when I have walked students to spaces on campuses to show concretely what sociologists can learn from outside stained glass windows (in my sociology of religion course) or from library-provided research databases (in my introduction to sociology course).  Field trips are of course common in the U.S. at the compulsory educational level.  I for one have many memories of school field trips, such as the one to plant fir seedlings on the Olympic Peninsula in 6th grade, or another one in high school, to Seattle (the big city!) to perform in a marching band competition.
Active learning opportunities in the form of school exchanges and field trips are also available all over the l'Union Européenne (European Union, the French reverse the EU).  The EU sponsors cultural bridge opportunities for schools across member states, such as those available under the Comenius Lifelong learning program.  From our U.S. perspective, these opportunities seem so cosmopolitan because they involve the crossing of national borders and multiple languages, whereas field trips across similar distances in the U.S. take us at most to another state.  But the active learning occurs regardless of where the field trips take students.  This year and next year, our boys' school is engaged in Comenius-sponsored bilateral school project with a middle school in Prague.  (Details about EU-sponsored Comenius Bilateral school projects are available directly on the EU website for Lifelong learning programs, click here  http://ec.europa.eu/education/comenius/school_en.htm  and then on the link to bilateral projects.)  Without explicitly say so, these bilateral projects are clearly meant to offer experiential and active learning opportunities through language learning, through the study of a theme of mutual interest, and through cultural exchange.  The project documentation also mentions the goal of 'enhancing the European dimension of education.' 

The subject of the bilateral project between Collège Auguste Mignet in Aix en Provence and Ďáblice middle school in Prague is the Czech composer Boruslav Martinů.  He studied and performed music in Prague, and after leaving his homeland en route to the United States, he made a brief visit to Aix, where he composed some music and developed a friendship with Aix composer Darius Milhaud (for whom the Aix music conservatory is named).  (Click here for a brief explanation of the project thus far, by the organizing teacher on the French school's website, in French.  Click here for my translation, in English.  And again here, for the Czech school's announcement of the project, in Czech. )  Martinů thus represents un pont entre deux cultures (a bridge between two cultures), while the bilateral school project itself offers a pedagogical bridge over which the students will make connections between what they are learning about Martinů at school and what they experience in the physical and cultural environment in which he did some of his work.  Of course, I see many sociological learning opportunities here as well, as the students will surely begin to recognize that underlying the cultural and linguistic differences are basic social and human qualities that we all share.

Right now, the French school's students are doing their 'detective work', as the organizing teacher calls it, to understand who Martinů was, and what his connection to Aix was.  They are also learning some basic Czech and rehearsing a theatrical piece inspired by Martinů and his life that they will perform while in Prague.  Our son's private piano teacher is helping him learn a bit about Martinů through his music, with a lively and challenging piano composition from Borová, his Seven Czech dances (in this case, the 7th dance).  The actual 10-day trip to Prague this spring will represent the high point of active learning, where students will gain understanding by crossing the bridge between abstract knowledge and concrete experiences, and during which they will no doubt trace Martinů's steps in Prague a bit, perhaps even crossing some of the same physical bridges as he did.  An equivalent learning experience will take place for the Czech students when they come to Aix the following year to see where Martinů lived briefly and composed.  While some of the learning on both sides is taking place in English, both groups of students will also be immersed linguistically and culturally within their host families on their respective visits.  As our family has so clearly discovered during our French adventure, such immersion is the ultimate active learning experience!

St. Charles Bridge in Prague © Jorge Royan / http://www.royan.com.arCC-BY-SA-3.0 under   Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported

03 February 2013

M comme...

Pavillon M (pavilion M) is the name of a new exhibition space built in Marseille for its designation as the 2013 European Capital of Culture.  According to the pavilion brochure, some of the things to know and see about Marseille and the exhibits in the hall also begin with the letter M.  M comme (M, as in,)...
  • 7 Marvels of Marseille: culture, patrimony, knowledge, art of living, the sporting life, territorial assets, the Marseillians themselves,
  • the Modern style of architecture of the exhibition hall, 
  • Multimedia features that tell visitors about the city (the hall features art in multiple forms, archeological artifacts, and numerous audio-visual clips shown on screens throughout, with somewhat jumpy and occasionally repetitive footage, and inexplicably small viewing rooms for 3-D and other images--just 15 and 30 person capacities--how will they accommodate the crowds this summer?), 
  • Metamorphosis that represents the dynamism of a territory that is always changing or moving (is this a euphemism for 'we are not quite done with all of the construction yet for the year, but we will be soon'?  See my post from Jan. 8, 2013: Faire le ménage) , 
  • Monumental, as in the size of the building and the escalating walkway beside it, 
  • Marseille-Provence 2013 which is the official name of this year's European Capital of Culture program,
  • and the Mediterranean sea, a view of which can be seen from the upper terrace of the pavilion.  
It is from this terrace that I began realizing a few more additions to the M list above, for what else did we feel and see and hear in Marseille on this late Saturday afternoon in early February?  An ever-stronger Mistral wind kicking up, a few thousand people gathering for an anti-gay marriage Manifestation (demonstration) called Manif pour tous ('demo' for all), and the echoes of magnified voices speaking out against the mandate for gay marriage, an important measure for which had just been passed through the National Assembly the same afternoon.

Now it made sense why we had seen clusters of French riot police along the streets with odd shoulder pads on top of their uniforms (a bit like those worn by American football players); they had been preparing for potentially violent protests.  As it turned out, the greater danger to all was from the wind.  We later discovered that the French weather service had issued a Vigilance Orange (orange alert) for Marseille and its environs due to increasingly strong wind gusts, one of which was recorded at 130 km/h in the late afternoon near our attempted route* towards the commercial port area to view other Culture Capital exhibitions (as reported in "Un vent à ..." La Provence, 3.2.2013).  The Mistral rattled and loosened temporary fencing as we passed by, it set off an alarm on a construction crane, it threw one of my sons to the ground, and I was pushed violently into a metal stanchion and against a concrete block.  If not as dramatically, certainly more metaphorically, that fierce wind also threatened to carry off the pink and blue protest flags of the anti-gay marriage demonstrators.  Their traditional views on marriage may still be audible and visible for now, but social change is in the wind.  In the long run, or more likely in the shorter run, perhaps even in this same year as Marseille's culture party, the French presidential mandate on behalf of gay marriage will succeed, thanks to the support from a growing majority of the French public and the inevitable responses by those in the French parliamentSo, M is also for Mariage pour tous (marriage for all), and it is coming, to Marseille, and to the rest of France.

*See http://aixcentric.com/2013/01/23/marseille-marvellous-progress/ for a very do-able itinerary for a single day visit to Marseille.